North Korea Hides in China's Skirts

North Korea has reacted with instant outrage to the South Korean government's presentation of forensic evidence of the North's role in the sinking on March 26 of the patrol boat Cheonan with the loss of 46 lives.

The North has offered to send an investigative team to Seoul to check out the evidence, which includes part of a torpedo propeller with a North Korean serial number. The reaction clearly demonstrates the North's extreme sense of anxiety, not self-confidence, in erasing its fingerprints. Obviously the Kim Jong-il regime has started faltering under pressure.

North Korea is an excellent example of the hopelessness of a ferocious dictatorship over five decades, threatening South Korea and the global community to a degree that is out of proportion to the poverty-stricken country's actual capabilities. One gets the feeling that the South Korean people's hostility toward the communist regime is verging on the obsessive, particularly over the Cheonan sinking, which has become fodder for a series of South Korean television talk shows, not to mention some deeply conservative mainstream newspapers.

The Lee government has briefed a group of diplomats here in Seoul in a carefully worded but seemingly self-confident manner that a North Korean torpedo sank the warship. As if on cue, both President Lee Myung-bak and his foreign policy aides decided to take the case to the UN Security Council to seek new sanctions on North Korea despite the potential of high tension between Seoul and Pyongyang. In this context, as a token of the robust alliance between Seoul and Washington, DC, rather than an effort to mollify the South's angry mood, US President Barack Obama reportedly expressed full support and trust in a phone call to President Lee for the investigation by an international team.

The Lee government seems to be relatively optimistic about the possibility of a new sanctions resolution against the North. But whether the Security Council's resolution denounces the North's clandestine attack it must be a litmus test forming an unlikely global alliance, including Russia and in particular, China, which is too close to the regime in Pyongyang.

In the meantime, making the situation potentially much more explosive is the fact that the two distinctively differing political and economic sovereign states are themselves volatile in their respective geopolitical orientations. Each is internally and externally potentially vulnerable. Were these two states to be destabilized, the peninsula would be plunged into massive disorder, with conflict spinning out of control and the region's already delicate balance of power severely disrupted.

South and North Korea are geopolitical pivots whose own internal condition is of critical importance to the fate of the region. Yet the future geopolitical orientation and even the national cohesion of both states remain uncertain, essentially because of China. Beijing has warned Seoul that any wriggle room allowed for the cause of the sunken ship would worsen the relationship between the two Koreas and has insinuated that China would form a likely alliance with North Korea.

Given China's apparent stance that cross-border minority activism will be suppressed in consideration of a possible exodus of North Korean refugees, Beijing's foreign policy statements have made it plain that it views the northern part of North Korea as a zone of special geostrategic interest, from which outside economic--and even political--influence should be excluded, albeit both the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties are a much more distant memory. At their peak, they virtually ‘remote-controlled' the Korean peninsula. To that end, the revival of Greater China has become an organic part of the aspirations of the Chinese leadership that has led to economic success through reform and openness.

Targeted by foreign interests with the financial means to invest, North Korea has a knack for proposing economic investments that the Chinese leadership particularly would presume were lucrative. Kim Jong-il's planned visits to Dalian's locomotive manufacturing, Tianjin Harbor's docks and the Beijing Boao Biotech Company dovetail with Beijing's ambitions to have a much broader sweep, although it's still unconfirmed whether Kim received what he initially wanted. Many pundits here in Seoul point out that China is likely to put the North into a loosely subordinate relationship to Beijing in the longer term. The skillful employment of Chinese diplomacy to divide and rule, or its well-known status quo strategy has served Chinese interests well.

Given the North's deepening dependence on China, in other words, Beijing is playing a key role as the vitally crucial cork controlling access to the bottle that contains the potential riches of undeveloped natural resources and social infrastructure, while preventing the United States from exercising a monopoly on access to the region and thus strengthening China's decisive political and military leverage over all the policies of the communist North Korea.

The crippled Kim regime is very vulnerable to pressures from China. Pyongyang views Chinese engagement as necessary to its survival. China, too, struggles to retain as much as influence as possible in the North. Needless to say, China is the only country that can control the North's dying economy, rather than looking to territorial annexations. In the North Korea-China borders, despite the growing Korean fear of Sinification of the adjoining Pyongan and Hamgyong provinces in North Korea, the Chinese yuan is freely used. In reality, the exclusion of China from the North is neither desirable nor feasible, nor is the fanning of hostility between the two countries. That stark and gloomy reality makes not only North Koreans but also South Koreans fearful of potential annexation in terms of the sovereign status and achievement of a unified Korea in the future.

If North Korea were to follow the Chinese path to reform and openness -- and if China does not close its door to North Korea -- North Korea is highly likely to gravitate even further into the Chinese orbit, a prospect most North Korea analysts expect. Still, China's cautious engagement is likely to tantalize North Korea and other neighboring states, as clearly evidenced by the six-party talks to resolve the North's nuclear troubles, a step that clearly miffed the South Koreans, who believed that China's position would short-cut the delayed negotiations for achieving a denuclearized North Korea. Eventually, however, China doubled-faulted on its response---first in endorsing Kim Jong-il's visit to China and second in doubting the South's probe as politically motivated--- and erred by producing diplomatic rhetoric that demanded the greatest sensitivity in timing and in force but which was tone-deaf.

All in, North Korea's future is likely to be shaped by a more complex set of circumstances surrounding the peninsula, with the fate of the Kim regime determined by the intricate power struggles of the party, the military and the bureaucracy, as well as by the degree to which China conditions its relations with a newly emerging regime with no hope. China now should prove to the world that it's ready to address a responsible diplomacy as a global leader instead of questioning irresponsibly whether the findings are sufficient to explain the North's involvement.

Lee Byong-Chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.