SEOUL - North Korea seems to be playing the China card for all it's worth - in
multi-billions in aid and investment - to overcome United Nations sanctions and
pressure for Pyongyang to get rid of its nuclear program.
A report in South Korea about China investing US$10 billion in North Korea's
dilapidated economy has analysts worrying that such a deal could negate the
impact of promises of that much money in energy aid as a reward for North Korea
giving up its nukes.
American corporate lawyer Tom Pinansky, at a luncheon of the American Chamber
of Commerce in Seoul, raised the issue in a barbed question to South Korea's
ambassador to the US Han
Duk-soo. What would happen to six-party talks in which the lure of massive aid
is the bargaining tool, if China is going to give the North all the aid it
Han, a former prime minister with a long background in economic and foreign
affairs, more or less equivocated. There was nothing to substantiate the
report, he said, indicating that China, as host of the six-party talks on North
Korea's, was cooperating on sanctions.
The sincerity of China's avowed desire for North Korea to return to six-party
talks, though, is increasingly open to question. While North Korea turns to
China for relief from economic collapse, China in turn seems to be playing the
North Korean card against the US, South Korea and Japan at a time when their
always shaky relations are more strained than ever.
Might China's deal with North Korea scuttle the "grand bargain" that South
Korea's President Lee Myung-bak is proposing? "Only in dismantling the core
component" of its nuclear program, said Han, would North Korea get the aid it
needed. "Without Pyongyang's concrete denuclearization measures," he made
clear, "sanctions will continue".
The North Korean nuclear issue "requires closer coordination and cooperation",
he said. "Korea and the US must work closely."
But what about the China factor? South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that
Wang Jiarui, the international chief of the Chinese Communist Party, reportedly
sealed the deal when he was in Pyongyang this month purportedly to get North
Korea to return to six-party talks for the first time since December 2008.
The trip went so well that ailing Dear Leader Kim Jong-il accorded Wang the
privilege of posing for a formal photograph with him - a sure sign that Wang
had to have been offering some enticing lures. It was well known that an
economic team that accompanied Wang had critical talks on topics ranging from
banking to infrastructure, but Yonhap was the first to attach a figure to all
the good things going North Korea's way.
Kim Jong-il had no problem making Wang look like a highly skilled diplomat,
sending him back to Beijing with the headline-grabbing assurance that he wanted
nothing more than a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. He's been saying that for
years, but the media still reported it as if were news.
The real news evidently was that China, eager to rescue the North from economic
collapse, may be sparing its North Korean comrades the need to have to make
serious concessions about their nukes. As The Korea Times editorialized, "It is
well known China would rather have a nuclear-armed North Korea than a
completely collapsed neighbor."
China, though, is not just trying to "save North Korea". Beijing also sees
North Korea as a strategic partner or at least a foil to play against the US
while the US upsets China with moves that China sees as a threat, symbolically
and in real terms.
How better to send a message to Washington than to have Chinese officials and
analysts spreading the word that China is tightening ties with its old ally,
whom Chinese troops rescued in the Korean War? And why would China want to do
Two immediate reasons come to mind. One is US President Barack Obama's refusal
to yield to Chinese demands not to see the Dalai Lama. Obama saw the exiled
Tibetan spiritual leader on Thursday in an affront that put Washington in line,
in the Chinese view, with interests that want to undermine Chinese rule.
Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama was studiedly non-controversial, in no way
committing the US to doing anything about Chinese rule over Tibet, but it
showed US concern about Chinese abuses.
More annoying to the Chinese than the Dalai Lama's call on Obama was the US
commitment to sell $6.4 billion in arms to Taiwan.
China's relations with the island province, which it always claims as its own,
have improved greatly in recent years. Trade now goes on directly between
Taiwan and the Chinese mainland, no need for sending everything via Hong Kong,
and tourists come and go. Still, the specter of the US arming Taiwan with
sophisticated weaponry for a non-existent war that does not appear to be about
to break out is highly discomfiting to Chinese leaders.
And there are other disturbing issues. China balks at US demands to revalue its
money so Chinese exports will cost more on foreign markets, making American
goods more competitive and maybe reducing the enormous imbalance of trade. In a
grand total of approximately $400 billion in annual trade between the two
countries, for every dollar the US makes selling products to China, the Chinese
make five dollars exporting to the US. China also holds $755 billion in US
Treasury bills - a staggering figure that has a lot to do with keeping the US
economy afloat in hard times.
Considering all the money they're making off the US, the Chinese don't want to
mess up a good thing by provoking a crisis - or a wave of anti-Chinese
sentiment. Still, there may be no better device for getting Washington's
attention than to moot the idea of aiding and abetting North Korea without
saying so in so many words.
North Korea for the Chinese is an instrument tuned and ready for strumming any
time. North Korea's nuclear envoy Kim Kye-gwan followed up Wang's visit to Pyongyang
by going to Beijing and talking with Wu Dawei, former vice foreign minister and
now the North's chief nuclear envoy.
Like so many other missions, Kim's call on Wu raised expectations that China
would get North Korea on board for six-party talks. North Korea may have had
the same idea - in reverse. Could Kim and Wu have been talking about China
pouring in all that aid while North Korea stood fast in its demand for an end
to sanctions before returning to talks?
The next stop for Kim Kye-gwan might be Washington, or at least the North
Koreans think so. The State Department denies any plans for receiving Kim,
whose purpose in going there would be to drive home North Korea's demands,
which also include negotiations for a peace treaty to replace the Korean War
It was talks on those issues that Kim Yong-nam, whose title of chairman of the
presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly makes him North Korea's titular head
of state, doubtless had in mind when he called for "an end to hostile
relations" with the United States "through dialogue and negotiations".
The betting in South Korea is that North Korea will still have to agree at
least to return to six-party talks on its nukes, even if the talks go nowhere.
Starvation and disease in North Korea are not on the same level as they were in
the 1990s, but the signs are not good. Dwindling food supplies disappear in the
winter, and by spring it's much harder to find food.
Time is running out for face-saving. With China on his side, however, Kim
Jong-il may believe he's got time on his side as well.