Playing Hardball with North Korea

How Beijing can rein in Pyongyang’s increasingly reckless brinksmanship may be the toughest foreign-policy challenge of the last two years of the Hu Jintao administration writes Willy Lam.

Whether Chinese authorities can persuade ailing Dear Leader Kim Jong-il and the newly anointed heir-apparent Kim Jong-un to stop their provocative antics will also affect China’s relations with South Korea, Japan and the United States.
The Kim regime’s recent shelling of the South Korean island of Yeongpyeong came on the heels of Pyongyang’s admission that it had built a new uranium enrichment facility equipped with 2,000 centrifuges. South Korea and the United States have responded by holding large-scale naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, a sensitive stretch of water most of which lies within China’s exclusive economic zone. The new South Korean defence minister Kim Kwan-jin has indicated that Seoul will retaliate with redoubled force should Pyongyang launch another attack in the future.
Given that China is North Korea’s only ally – and that Beijing has continued to supply food, fuel and technology to its “lips-and-teeth” comrades-in-arms – the leadership of President Hu has suffered serious collateral damage due to its apparent failure to control North Korea’s shenanigans. Beijing has refused to criticize Pyongyang’s recent series of roguish behavior, which started with its sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan in March 2010. Information released from WikiLeaks has also indicated that Beijing had flouted United Nations sanctions on North Korea by allowing Pyongyang to ship missile parts to Iran through commercial flights emanating out of Chinese airports.
Instead of criticizing Pyongyang, the Hu administration has laid into the US – and allies such as South Korea and Japan – for aggravating tension by holding marathon rounds of war games in the region. Indeed, the Kim regime’s dangerous maneuvers have given the US a pretext for sending the nuclear- powered aircraft carrier the USS George Washington into the Yellow Sea. From Beijing’s perspectives, the consolidation of America’s defence alliance with not only South Korea and Japan, but also India and Australia, has conjured up conspiracy theories that the Barack Obama administration, which has reiterated its desire to “be back in Asia,” is exacerbating its anti-China containment policy. Moreover, South Korea, Japan and India have announced plans to procure more military hardware partly with a view of checking the rise of China.
There are indications, however, that the Chinese leadership is undergoing serious soul- searching on its problematic North Korean policy. WikiLeaks documents have cited senior Chinese diplomats as comparing the Kim regime to a “spoilt child” trying to attract the attention of – and to wangle concessions from – the US. More significantly, respected academics have publicly urged Beijing to play hardball with Pyongyang. Peking University international relations professor Zhu Feng pointed out after the Yeongpyeong incident, that “Beijing’s North Korea policy is dominated by inertia rather than sensitivity to its own national interests.” He said that “Chinese dithering has incited Cold War-type concerns in South Korea, Japan and the US.”
Another senior specialist on Korea, Central Party School Professor Zhang Liangui indicated that “the Kim regime is bent on building a full-fledged nuclear arsenal.” He warned that the possibility of Pyongyang blackmailing Beijing with its newly developed weapons of mass destruction could not be ruled out. Moreover, for the first time in recent memory, official Chinese media and websites have allowed the public to air their views on North Korea. The majority of Netizens who left their opinions on online chatrooms, pointed out that China must avoid being “dragged into the water” by the Kim regime.
In December, President Hu sent State Councillor Dai Bingguo to Pyongyang with a view to ensuring that Kim would desist from further provocations against South Korea. The official Xinhua News Agency reported that Kim and Dai “reached consensus on bilateral
relations and the situation on the Korean Peninsula after candid and in-depth talks.” While both sides did not disclose what the “consensus” was, Chinese diplomatic analysts pointed out that this referred to a promise made by Kim that Pyongyang would refrain from further unprovoked aggressive acts against the South. Kim apparently also agreed to the early re-opening of the repeatedly stalled Six-Party Talks on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The Hu leadership, however, faces an uphill battle in reassuring the global community that Beijing will acquit itself of the role of honest broker in the Korean crisis. Washington, in addition to Seoul and Tokyo, has been lukewarm about the resumption of the Six- Party Talks. They have indicated that the Kim regime, which is developing on its nuclear program at full throttle, might be just using the Talks as delaying tactics. Even more worrisome is the fast-declining health of the 68-year-old Dear Leader. To bolster the credentials of the 27-year-old Kim Jong-un – and buttress the legitimacy of the Kim Dynasty – Kim may have no choice but to persevere with his political poker game. After all, incidents such as the bombardment of Yeongpyeong Island and the sinking of the Cheonan corvette have been used by Pyongyang’s propaganda machinery to build up the larger-than-life prestige of the Kims.
Should Hu, who heads the policy-setting Leading Group on Foreign Affairs of the Communist Party, be able to use a judicious mixture of force and persuasion to tame the Kim regime, the 68-year-old supremo may be able to retire at the upcoming 18th Party Congress as China’s illustrious “Foreign Policy President.” A misreading of Kim’s intentions, or a reluctance to apply pressure on the pariah state, however, could risk igniting the tinder box that is the Korean Peninsula. At stake is not only China’s status as a fast-rising quasi-superpower but also the country’s ability to seek win-win scenarios with key Asia-Pacific neighbors such as the US, South Korea and Japan. 

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