China's Insult to South Korea
China's decision to roll out a glitzy welcome mat for the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il has stunned and shocked South Korea's leaders, ignoring South Korea's anger over the sinking, undoubtedly by the north, of a South Korean navy patrol ship on March 26 with the loss of 46 lives.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was not given any hint from his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao at a Shanghai summit meeting, hardly a week ago on May 1, that Kim was on his way to Beijing. It was on May 2 that the 68-year-old North Korean leader's clandestine visit initially went public.
Beijing's actions constitute the truncation of debate about controversial and complex issues over North Korea. Whatever China's motive might be, it is obnoxious for the Lee government, which has continued a decades-long effort to get along with Beijing, and which has vowed to investigate the mysterious explosion in a scientific and objective manner. In the face of widespread suspicion of North Korea's involvement, the highest-ranking political leaders of both North Korea and China have disregarded the South's concerns and hastened to meet with each other.
Seoul believes that Beijing cut the ground out from under it in order to safeguard the status quo on the peninsula and protect the traditional relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang. People on the street in South Korea believe the cause of the sinking has never been a question of whether the communist regime was involved, but rather when and, more important, how.
At a rare summit meeting with Kim Jong-il during his Beijing visit, Hu Jintao put forward five proposals to strengthen ties with the North. As expected, the proposals did not include the ship incident. According to China's state-run Xinhua news agency, Hu "spoke highly of the DPRK's active measures which have been taken to maintain stability, boost the economy and improve people's living conditions."
In response, the South Korean vice foreign minister at a May 3 meeting with the Chinese ambassador to Seoul, Zhang Xinsen, expressed his disappointment and asked for clarification on the timing of Kim's trip. When China sent its ambassador to visit the South Korean unification ministry in an effort to mollify ruffled feelings, the unification minister pointedly stressed China's responsibility as a global leader. Although the Lee government later rushed to cool down the 'volatile mood' in the hope that China would offer more details about the trip, some officials I know did not hide their feelings, fiercely attacking China's hypocrisy.
Given that the communist regime in Pyongyang has naturally emerged as the usual suspect over the sinking of the 1,200-ton warship, Kim's trip to Beijing was the seeming equivalent of a 'not guilty' verdict by China. The decision to invite Kim most likely will result in diplomatic troubles for the time being between South Korea and China unless Beijing can somehow deliver answers very soon. Most of Seoul's focus is on building international support for a new round of UN sanctions, but the decision to invite Kim is an indication that China no longer cares what South Korea thinks. Figuratively speaking, China usually gets both the first and last bite of an apple related to Korean affairs.
Some analysts interpret Kim's visit as initiated by North Korea to test the limits of China's staying power after Beijing lost patience last year when the North tested its second atomic warhead. If the Chinese don't provide continuing aid to the North's disaster-plagued economy, the analysts say, refugees will ultimately pick up the pace of their escape from the country, which could collapse altogether. Maybe letting the failed regime die is the right decision, even though the collapse of the regime would be a huge blow to China.
Some people point out that it is not commendable to confront China. In reality, China is a co-pilot together with the U.S. in dealing with Korean affairs, including nuclear issues and a peace treaty agreement. Obviously, China knows how to push a button to solve the problems facing North Korea if it wished to do so.
China's influence over North Korea has grown in size and effectiveness, as if Beijing should be held to account for the continuity of Pyongyang's broken regime without the offsetting presence of Chinese power, unlike those of South Korea and Japan. It is no accident that so far, China has become biased in favor of the Kim regime. The fact that Beijing permitted Kim's trip demonstrates that the relationship between the two countries remains by no means a plaque that simply gathers dust in a closet.
For more than a decade, South Korea has diligently pursued detente with China, with its trade rising sharply. South Korea is China's fourth-largest export partner and third-largest import partner. But from the perspective of the right-wing Lee government, the huge amount of China-Korea trade has brought economic victories but they have not been able to create diplomatic ones.
South Korea takes it for granted that it is frivolous to be welcoming Kim when the South is caught in a deepening military drama that almost certainly came from the North. For Seoul, with its strategy for dealing with China now in doubt, Beijing has become an elephant in the room. Right now, everyone is focused on the blast, but the incident itself is not an immediate threat to Seoul. North Korea's nuclear weapons program is a more immediate and direct threat, and that is where China's help is most crucial.
China has developed the ability to slip in and out of different worlds---socialism and capitalism, nationalism and globalism and North Korea and South Korea. There are still those in Beijing's corridors of power who want to wean South Korea from the United States while reducing North Korea to being a Chinese puppet state. In this regard, China's intended quiescence makes it clear that it is in its immediate security interests to try to make the Kim regime more prone to rely on China economically and politically, instead of standing by Seoul's side without knowing for sure who was responsible for the blast. That said, North Korea already became a blood poor nation governed through a corrosive mix of economic support spoon-fed to a unique dictatorship.
While maintaining its unyielding support for the North, China has no intention of asking its ally to stop flirting with fanaticism. Now the security-conscious Kim Jong-il is planning to make an unprecedented power transfer to his son Jong-Un. A lot of foreign affairs pundits in Seoul believe that China will continue to aid the poverty-stricken North Korea, protect the post-Kim regime, broker negotiations between Seoul and Pyongyang and feel more comfortable in keeping the status quo than ever to opt for an achievement of a unified Korea in near future.
China has every reason to support North Korea's efforts to reform its broken economic system, expand trade with more countries and maintain the socialist regime. But as a responsible member state of the world, China should ask North Korea to crack open its ossified systems, to say nothing about abandoning the dangerous nuclear ambitions. What China really wants should be the denuclearization of the North, not merely "no trouble." Unfortunately, China as the strongest guarantor of denuclearization on the peninsula is not offering the best remedy to resolve the nuclear troubles. At the same time, China needs to know that it has the chance to do more in the making of peace and stability on the peninsula than supporting the North playing stall ball.
President Hu's most troubling North Korea test has just begun. South Koreans hope that he will show Oriental finesse, not quirks, that have been missing in Asia for long time in the course of modernization.
Lee Byong-Chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.