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     Dec 2, 2010

China to dump North Korea, really?
By Sunny Lee

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 Myung-bak.

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 aggression.

"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 Hopkins University.

"I think China's interest in North Korea is unchanged," said the Nixon Center's Thompson.

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," Petrov said.

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 North Korea."

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 (sleethenational@gmail.com) is a Seoul-born columnist and journalist; he has degrees from the US and China.

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