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Winning Chinese checkers against US, N Korea
By Jaewoo Choo

SEOUL - Exit stage right. Enter stage left. Just after US Vice President Dick Cheney left China, it was discovered that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was on his way that very evening to meet China's fourth-generation leaders headed by President Hu Jintao.

Kim's seemingly abrupt visit to his old Chinese comrades appeared to catch the world by surprise. State Department comments, South Korean and Taiwanese sources - including officials, diplomats, journalists and others - confirmed Beijing's diplomatic sleight of hand, its stroke at Chinese checkers, though it must have been a bit embarrassing to Washington. And it's not yet clear whether the stroke was a master stroke in a master plan.

The way China deftly planned and orchestrated the high-level visit was particularly remarkable, in a way showing the world how shrewd China can be diplomatically and what a pivotal role it can play in difficult, adversarial situations. Beijing surely knew of Kim's pending visit while Cheney was in the capital, or quite possibly before his arrival in the Forbidden City. China's gamesmanship naturally invites a set of questions: Why did China want to keep the forthcoming Kim visit a secret from Cheney and the United States? What about the timing of Kim's visit? Why after Cheney's visit? What did Kim have in mind? Did Kim get what he sought? Only mind readers can answer some of these questions, but educated speculation can be made.

All these questions have to be addressed in the context of North Korea's current diplomatic predicament. Since neither the Chinese nor the North Korean government has released any official statement to explain Kim's trip, we have to rely on intelligent guesswork, drawing some inferences from Pyongyang's diplomatic troubles, confronting and challenging the regime. These troubles are indeed causing very much anxiety on Kim's part, reflected in the timing and the content of his brief itinerary. Otherwise, Kim's first official trip since the new Chinese leadership took power in 2003 would have been hailed and publicized - carefully.

Since the second round of the six-party talks on defusing the Pyongyang nuclear crisis concluded in late February, the participants - except North Korea - have been very interactive in learning and discussing possible follow-up measures. In March, the US, Japan and South Korea held working-level and senior official meetings to coordinate their positions and actions. Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing visited Tokyo this month to discuss North Korea strategy with his Japanese counterpart, only to find himself hindered by historical-legacy problems such as Japan's former occupation of China. Cheney, meanwhile, was also making a tour in East Asia, where he is reported to have gone into considerable detail in discussing possible options for North Korea's nuclear case with government leaders. These two developments may well have influenced Kim to visit Beijing and find out what was going on.

Furthermore, the recent adoption of a resolution by the United Nations Human Rights Commission, criticizing North Korea's grave rights abuses dealt another blow to Pyongyang's survival calculation, considering the gradual trade-in of its nuclear program for economic aid and assistance. With adoption of the human-rights censure resolution, North Korea will be under even closer scrutiny, though scrutiny is difficult in the Hermit Kingdom. Should historical precedents have any meaning for the North Korean case, it is left with no other choice but to cooperate with the requirements of the commission. Otherwise, even if it decides to give up the nuclear program - and this is far from clear - the economic interest it seeks in return will not be easily guaranteed. As long as the human-rights tag is attached to the economic price, North Korea, like others, must to some degree comply with the international pressure. China, for example, had to improve its human-rights record to obtain Normal Trade Relations (NTR), formerly known as Most Favored Nation (MFN), status from the United States.

UN pressure to improve human rights
Further, it will be difficult for North Korea unilaterally to refuse to admit the special rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Commission who is required to conduct a field study of the human-rights condition in the nation. A lack of cooperation with the rapporteur could make UN membership itself uncomfortable, though Pyongyang is in no danger of losing its seat - many gross violators of human rights are UN members and members of the Human Rights Commission. It will also be difficult for North Korea to follow the old tactics of Myanmar, which resisted human-rights inspections for a decade.

North Korea is now in desperate need of help and advice from a government that has successfully dealt with a similar predicament, ostracism, isolation, hostility, threat of conflict. To Pyongyang, China is the only choice. Ironically, on the same day the human-rights censure resolution was adopted in Geneva, China managed to outmaneuver the West and get members of the rights commission to vote against voting on the US resolution to censure Beijing.

Should North Korea's interest in economic improvement be impeded by human-rights issues, its only available source to replace genuine international assistance is to cultivate its own channel - China. Pyongyang now realizes that this channel, in essence barter, can no longer be found in traditional socialist and communist friendship terms. Barter today is an unorthodox way of conducting trade with modern China, an economic powerhouse and member of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

China's WTO membership and its trade obligations had been overlooked by many Korea and China observers. China now is obligated to follow WTO rules and norms in its trade; it's difficult for China to justify barter or non-cash terms with North Korea as it did in the days of socialist solidarity. North Korea, however, was getting the idea of modern trade realities. This realization on Pyongyang's part is clearly reflected in the rise in its official trade volume with China. According to a report released by the Financial Times, North Korea's export to China during January and February rose by 54 percent compared with the same period of last year, reaching US$37.11 million.

According to the Chinese customs report, North Korea's export of steel to China showed a huge increase not only in volume but also in value. In January alone, North Korea's steel exports rose by 317.3 percent compared with the same month the year before, totaling $7.09 million, offering an alternative source to alleviate China's potential steel shortage early this year. While trade volume of pig iron reached a record $3.5 million, an increase of 363.2 percent in the same period, scrap iron reached $2.06 million and rose by 504 percent. Similarly, iron ore was traded to China for $1.27 million last October, $1.57 million in December, and more than $1 million in January. While smuggling and illegal border trade are still a greater source of hard currency, the official trade statistics may indicate the degree of North Korea's willingness gradually to adjust and adapt to normal trade practice.

Kim Jong-il's lack of knowledge of China's new, more forward-looking, reformist leadership certainly may have convinced him that this was a good time to visit Beijing. Since the outbreak of the first North Korean nuclear crisis in 1993-94, Pyongyang has felt tension in its relations with China in case of an emergency; Pyongyang has been uncertain - rightly so - of China's willingness and commitment as an ally to intervene to help it against an attack as required by their 1961 friendship treaty. With the generational change in China's leaders and the inevitable gap in perception and understanding of the bilateral relations, Kim needed to check out the situation with the new leadership. So he went. But he certainly received an invitation.

Shrewd Chinese diplomacy
No one in a school of diplomacy or international relations would believe that a head of state could possibly visit another state at his or her own whim. And Kim Jong-il could not charge off to Beijing without an invitation, however abrupt it may have been. Maybe Kim had intended to seek an invitation a while back. Maybe China had been intending to issue one and the confluence of events made the timing right. In any case, Kim's plan to visit Beijing could not have been realized without advance notice and planning. By the same logic, Beijing might have learned of Kim's decision either before Cheney's visit or during it at the latest. Under the circumstances, it naturally suggests the question of Chinese purpose and intention in keeping the next visitor's identity a secret from Cheney and the US.

Chinese intentions can be interpreted in many ways. Nonetheless, in terms of the nuclear issue, China's action can be interpreted as an expansion of its role as a mediator in resolving the nuclear crisis. Given China's opposition to any worsening of the crisis or to actual conflict, coupled with its desired peaceful resolution, Beijing may have wanted to hear the truth and nothing but the truth from both the United States and North Korea, which do not trust each other and will almost certainly not speak candidly and directly to each other. Cheney, as No 2 man in the United States, may well have come with a substantial and credible message from Washington on the nuclear issue and what the US was prepared to do, and not to do. Kim, while eager to learn the true position of the US, probably wanted to discuss the best way to survive or, better yet, escape his predicament.

China may have succeeded in doing so - getting what passed for "truth" from each side - retrieving substantial information that could enhance its role as a mediator in bridging the gap of distrust and hostility between the United States and North Korea. This may well be the case, because so far China has not released the full version of the speeches and addresses, not to mention the talks, that Cheney delivered during his stay. China may be deliberately withholding this information to build more trust between Washington and Beijing. And perhaps for this reason it can soothe the possible feeling of betrayal that may be coming from Washington and Cheney for China's extreme discretion in stage-managing the events. It is not going to insult the US as long as it is going to convey the true message from Kim, and the same goes for North Korea.

In this scenario, China is the sole party that understands fully the United States' and North Korea's positions and policies on the nuclear issue, thereby equipping itself with a much stronger game plan to tackle both. Furthermore, neither the US nor North Korea can afford to cheat the other or reverse its position by will and whim. The US, if it were truly to solve the problem in a peaceful manner, should not necessarily feel betrayed by the Chinese move, but should feel it has discovered a long-sought end to the confidence-building opportunity with North Korea.

Did Kim get what he wanted from China?
As reported and heralded by media in China, North Korea and South Korea at the conclusion of the Kim's visit, it seems he got what he was looking for on that occasion, although it is still not known exactly what that was. Nonetheless, based on the above speculation and the released copy of the dialogue between Kim and China's leaders, as well as Jiang Zemin, chairman of the powerful Chinese Central Military Commission (CMC), Kim may have found himself much more comfortable regarding his state's relations with China. He received very comforting words on China's respect for the bilateral relations.

In addition, Kim was able to confirm China's commitment on economic issues. China promised to continue its economic aid and assistance, although exact terms were not revealed. Whether the economic help includes incentives for participating in the third round of the six-party talks is still not known. However, since Pyongyang can no longer rely on the limited aid and assistance from Beijing and Seoul for survival, or on drug trafficking, money forgery, arms sales and fellow North Koreans' earnings in Japan, it needs an alternative.

That is, a normal, and legal, way of earning hard currency. North Korea's realization of such need is indeed reflected in dramatic increase in trade with China in recent times. In short, with its successful economic-development experience, Beijing will help Pyongyang to get a better understanding of more normal ways to acquire economic gains. This does not, however, necessarily mean it will have a profound effect on opening of the country and economic reform.

With respect to Kim's uncertainty about the alliance relations with China, his doubt was cleared away by the words of Jiang Zemin, who rarely receives visitors since his retreat from the main stage of the Chinese domestic politics scene last year. On the occasion, Jiang emphasized the need to increase military exchange and to initiate a joint military exercise between the two nations. The intention and purpose, and to a certain extent the creditability, behind his words on joint military exercises are still unknown. However, they must have a soothing effect on Kim's doubt about the current status of the alliance with China in both psychological and strategic terms. Kim and his nation now clearly get the gist of where China stands on the bilateral relations. To the same extent, he now knows much better the US position on the nuclear issue as well as the six-party talks. Thus, for the time being, Kim should much more comfortable with his nation's conduct of foreign affairs.

Jaewoo Choo, PhD, is assistant professor in the School of International Relations and Area Studies, Kyung Hee University, South Korea.

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Apr 27, 2004

For Kim and N Korea, sign of mortality
(Apr 24, '04)

What if Kim had been killed?
(Apr 24, '04)

China-N Korea: Speak softly, carry a small stick (Mar 9, '04)


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