North Korea cools offBy Asia Sentinel Jan 05, 2011 1:23PM UTC
China demonstrates its chokehold on Pyongyang, writes Asia Sentinel’s Lee Byong-Chul
After some of the most heated confrontations since the Korean War ended in 1953, North Korea over the last two or three weeks has suddenly started to blow appreciably cooler. The question is why.
A sea change seems to have come after South Korea staged live-fire manoeuvres on islands adjacent to North Korea in the Yellow Sea, and North Korea answered back with artillery fire that took the lives of four people. In the North’s annual New Year commentary, Pyongyang called for better relations with the South, warning that war could lead to a “nuclear holocaust.”
It is widely assumed in Washington and elsewhere that Beijing, finally fed up with Pyongyang’s continuing provocations including the sinking of the South Korean gunboat Cheonan last April, has told the North to back off. China has called for a return to the six-party talks over the peninsula.
One of the lessons of this episode is that despite professions of inability to control its client state, China appears now to have demonstrated unrivalled leverage on the North in terms of economic, political and military intervention. In addition to supplying substantial amounts of aid including 90 percent of the North’s oil at sharply lower “friendly prices,” China has co-opted and trained a pro-Chinese cadre of North Korean functionaries and elites in the hopes that they would become collaborators under the coming regime of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s son and presumptive heir. So Beijing is no longer hiding its solid hold over the North.
There is a certain amount of evidence of distrust of China on the part of the North as well, with the Jan. 3 disclosure of a US diplomatic cable by WikiLeaks, in which Hyun Jeong-eun, the chairwoman of Hyundai Group, returned from the North after a 2009 meeting with Kim. In the cable, Kathleen Stephens, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, reported on a breakfast with Hyun in which she said that Kim Jong-Il was disappointed after the North’s second nuclear test in May 2009, when China did not object to a UN Security Council resolution condemning the communist country for the test. China’s foreign ministry also issued a statement expressing opposition to the test.
China appears to believe that in the case of a contingency plan for the collapse of the north’s government, it could thus recruit North Korean military men, using them to virtually rule the Kim regime and its population faster than the US could move into place to support the South to take over. The Chinese leadership correctly judges that South Korea would find it difficult to synchronize with the US. Nor, it is thought, would Japan be much help.