BEIJING - The WikiLeaks revelations on North Korea did not surprise analysts,
who said they are after all not particularly substantial; and when it comes to
North Korea, even ranking government officials can be wrong.
Leaked US diplomatic cables show China's frustration with communist ally North
Korea and present a picture that Beijing is likely to abandon its long-time
ideological brother country by accepting a future unified Korea under South
Korean control. That interpretation, analysts say, belies reality.
The secret US government documents are a selective amalgam of bits and pieces
of diplomatic conversations, often quoted secondarily, with heavy addition of
personal views of some
diplomats. Taken at face value, analysts fear they misproject what is really
going on in the geopolitics surrounding the Korean Peninsula.
WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing website, released the documents amid fresh
tensions in the region with North Korea launching a fiery artillery barrage on
a South Korean island that killed four people a week ago.
Chun Yung-woo, then-South Korean vice foreign minister, confided to US
ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens in February that China "would be
comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the US
in a 'benign alliance' as long as Korea was not hostile towards China",
according to WikiLeaks. Chun is now national security adviser to President Lee
The US diplomatic cables, however, said that China would not accept the
presence of US troops north of the demilitarized zone, the inter-Korean border
demarcated in 1953.
Chinese officials are also quoted as using scornful language in reference to
North Korea, in contrast to official wordings emphasizing strong historical
bonds. For example, then-deputy foreign minister He Yafei is quoted as telling
an American official in April 2009 that Pyongyang was acting like a "spoiled
child" by staging a missile test to seek the attention of the US administration
and hold bilateral talks with Washington.
"It is hardly earth-shattering," said Drew Thompson, an expert on China-North
Korea relations at the Nixon Center in Washington. These sort of things are
relatively common knowledge. We know that China is frustrated with North Korea.
We've been saying that for years."
"For North Korea watchers, it was not much of a news," said Leonid Petrov, a
Russian expert on Korean affairs, who teaches at the University of Sydney.
Going against the predominant sentiment in the WikiLeaks documents, in which
China is seen as ready to abandon its long-time communist ally, observers
largely believe bilateral ties are intact, even after North Korea's attack on
the South last week, which drew international criticism on China as it
long-time enabler, and calls for Beijing to do more to contain the North's
"It's obvious from the fact that China didn't criticize North Korea for the
incident," said Tong Kim, a former US State Department official who now teaches
at the Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns
"I think China's interest in North Korea is unchanged," said the Nixon Center's
What WikiLeaks did, according to analysts, was offer confirmation of the
shallowness of the rest of the world's understanding of North Korea, even at
the very high level of a government bureaucracy, and how easy it is to be
misled by one source or another.
"WikiLeaks helps us to know that, after all, intelligence is sometimes not
reliable and sometimes even can be funny," said Petrov. "It also reveals what
could happen when you don't have direct access to North Korea. People who
really know North Korea don't send cables to their government from neighboring
countries [of North Korea.]"
Countries that really understand North Korea have diplomats in Pyongyang, like
some European nations, Russia and China. "They all have embassies in Pyongyang
and they have direct access to North Korean government officials and people,"
Kim, who has participated in negotiations between American officials and their
North Korean counterparts, including some high-level private dialogues, as an
interpreter, challenged the accuracy of the views reflected in WikiLeaks.
"What we see from WikiLeaks are parts and pieces of conversations, quotes that
are secondary, and often added with personal views of officials. We need to
distinguish that. Otherwise, it could project a very wrong picture of the
diplomacy being playing out over the Korean Peninsula," said Kim.
"China's frustration and discontent with North Korea has often been mentioned
by progressive Chinese scholars. However, the leaks in WikiLeaks that stated
that China ‘accepts' a unification of Korea under South Korean control or China
would support South Korea in times of contingency in North Korea are overstated
judgments [by Chun, the South Korean diplomat].
"Some working-level Chinese diplomats might think so. But that doesn't reflect
China's stance. It's important to remember that China's policy on North Korea
is decided by the politburo standing committee of the Communist Party and the
military," said Kim.
The chairman of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly, Choe Thae-bok, is
currently visiting Beijing at the invitation of Wu Bangguo, who as chairman of
the National People's Congress is one of China's most powerful officials.
Wang Fan, a security analyst at China Foreign Affairs University run by the
Foreign Ministry, brushed aside some outside view that the leaks dealt a blow
to relations between Pyongyang and Beijing. "I don't think it will have any
impact," Wang said. "Choe is likely to privately complain about it, demanding
an explanation," said Kim, yet downplaying the "fallout".
Thompson, who often functions as an interlocutor between Beijing and
Washington, bemoans the fact that the leaks were made public. He disputes the
argument of media outlets that claim it's the public's rights to know. "Yes,
it's stimulating. It's dominating the news. But WikiLeaks is part of the
downfall of journalism. It's not the same as the Pentagon Papers, which was a
thoughtful analysis. There is a huge difference.
"It's tantalizing for experts on foreign affairs to see how diplomacy works.
But the problem is that some of the revelations now available on open source
like WikiLeaks is that they're not confirmed and they are also not confirmable.
Worse, some of them are just rumors," said Thompson.
In response to the latest WikiLeaks, the new director of the Office of
Management and Budget, Jacob Lew, has ordered all United States federal
agencies to conduct a full-scale review of their information security
procedures. "The recent irresponsible disclosure by WikiLeaks has resulted in
significant damage to our national security," Lew wrote in a memo on Monday.
Analysts believe that real, critical information is still outside the public
realm. "I am pretty sure the Russian Embassy or the Chinese Embassy in
Pyongyang know and understand North Korea much better. They know personalities
there. They know who is in what condition. Who's controlling what. Yet they
simply don't share this [with diplomats of other countries]. So, what was
leaked was just the tip of an iceberg," said Petrov, the Russian expert.
WikiLeaks said China was preparing a contingency plan in the case of the
collapse of North Korea and a flood of North Korean refugees to Chinese
territory and outbreaks of unrest along its border that could happen if the
with North Korean regime failed. Chinese officials in the leaks said China
"could deal with up to 300,000 refugees but might have to seal the border to
maintain order". This is one of the most sensitive parts of WikiLeaks and is
something that America has repeatedly nudged China to discuss, though China has
so far refused.
Thompson believes that the leaks will make China much more reluctant to talk
about its concerns over a North Korean collapse. "If they start to discuss
openly the failure of North Korea, that might spark a crisis of confidence in
While China's stance of propping up North Korea is currently intact, the
possibility of fissures opening up is worthy of attention. A new dynamic could
be introduced as and when Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping become the nation's
top leader in 2012, according to Kim, the former US State Department official.
"It's true that some younger diplomatic aides to Xi have a disapproving view on
North Korea. Whether China's policy toward North Korea may shift under Xi
Jinping is something to be watched," said Kim.
Sunny Lee ([email protected]) is a Seoul-born columnist
and journalist; he has degrees from the US and China.