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    Greater China
     Jan 9, 2013

China's short-lived North Korean shift
By Sunny Lee

BEIJING - Observers have been scratching their heads over what they consider to be China's short-lived "about-face" on North Korea. After North Korea announced that it would launch a rocket late last year, China responded with a strong warning. But it didn't last long. China soon pedaled back to its "default position" after the actual launch on December 12, shielding North Korea from the international outcry as usual.

What observers are trying to understand is not China's usual protective posture about North Korea, but the initial strong warning prior to the the launch.

"China's reaction was quite stern compared to what we had

usually come to expect from it," observed Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the International Crisis Group's North East Asia Project Director and China Adviser.

The shift in attitude was so unusual that South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo daily newspaper on December 7 even declared: "China's attitude (on North Korea) has visibly changed." The newspaper carried an arresting title: "Xi Jinping's change: 'North Korea, you've got to behave'." The newspaper mistakenly thought that China's new leader Xi Jinping decided to reign in Pyongyang's wayward nuclear libido.

Indeed, some South Korean media outlets judged that the Chinese new leader Xi Jinping would turn out to be a strong reformer and expected that once Xi would take over the Chinese leadership, he would also lead North Korea on the path for reform and opening up - similar to China's own experience.

But such a hope didn't materialize. The Chinese foreign ministry soon fell back into its default position of putting up a protective shield for Pyongyang, toning down international calls for strong punitive measures. The ministry spokesman told reporters on December 12 that the UN Security Council's reaction to Pyongyang's rocket launch should be "prudent, moderate" and conducive to maintaining peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula so as to "avoid further escalation of the situation". That was a familiar line form China. After the sinking of the South's Cheonan naval vessel in 2010, for which North Korea was blamed, China exasperated Seoul by calling for "calm on both sides of the two Koreas".

"At the end of the day, China will only go so far, because it prioritizes stability over denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula," Kleine-Ahlbrandt said.

Given China's track record, that's understandable. But how can China's initial strong warning to North Korea be explained? Just like a blip on the radar screen, did China display a sudden mood swing on North Korea, which then quickly disappeared like a UFO? Even though it was a quick move, it was also prominent enough that observers didn't miss it and media outlets took it as a significant gesture.

Understanding the riddle is important because it possibly offers a clue to the murky Chinese decision making process on North Korea and the players involved.

According to a person who is familiar with the intrigue, China's short-lived tough posture on North Korea was sort of a "personal favor" by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to US President Barack Obama. Obama and Wen met in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, on November 20, on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit gathering.

"At that time, Obama told the Chinese Premier Wen that North Korea would likely to launch a rocket and asked Wen to exercise pressure [on North Korea]," said the well-placed source, seeking the customary anonymity attached to discussing diplomatic affairs.

Surprisingly, Wen agreed. "That's why China's response this time to the North Korean rocket launch was different," the source said, denoting the importance of personal ties in dealing with the Chinese leadership.

It is not clear in what context Obama asked the favor to Wen. It may have been either while the two were chatting or during their more official bilateral meeting, which they held on the sidelines of the Asian gathering.

What is not disputed is that a personal chemistry between Obama and Wen Jiaobao played a role, according to the source. China has its characteristic relationship network mojo, called guanxi. A good guanxi, based on personal affinity and trust, can do wonders. It can lead to business contract, for example. In this case, a good guanxi with the Chinese leadership made "the blip on the radar screen" in the Chinese posture on North Korea.

The international community has been calling on China to contain North Korea's provocations for years. China is the only country that has regular high-level talks with North Korea, and it is also Pyongyang's long-time enabler, providing Pyongyang with food and energy aid.

But when it comes to the fundamental shift in China's policy on North Korea, it is not just a matter between the rival two Koreas but more to do with competing strategies between Washington and Beijing in East Asia.

Against the backdrop of America's deepening military and security engagement in the Asia-Pacific, often indicated as the "pivot to Asia", China has been increasingly raising its eyebrows at the military alliance Seoul has with Washington. Simply put, China is suspicious whether South Korea's defense pact with the US is not just against North Korea, but also against China. With that, analysts believe that China's tendency to see North Korea as a "buffer zone" against the US and its allies in East Asia, will persist.

Sunny Lee (sleethenational@gmail.com) is a Seoul-born columnist and journalist, who follows on North Korea and China.

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North Korea picks its rocket moment
(Dec14, '12)



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