China's Stand on North Korea Under Fire

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Two months after his succession, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has seized the initiative by agreeing to restart denuclearization talks with the United States. The imperative for choosing to talk is clear: He urgently needs to establish leadership credentials at a time of domestic transition, especially in the face of acute food shortages ahead of the centennial celebration of his grandfather and the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung, on April 15. The move also relieves international pressure on China to bring its close ally to the table, although it does little to ease Beijing’s strained relations with South Korea.

The deal from Kim Jong Un may also have his late father’s imprimatur. Under the February 29 agreement reached in Beijing, Pyongyang is to freeze its nuclear weapons program in exchange for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid; the North must implement a moratorium on its uranium-enrichment activities and allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect and monitor key nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. In addition, it will suspend long-range missile launches and nuclear tests and open the 5-megawatt reactor from which an unspecified amount of plutonium has already been extracted for a separate, previous weapons program. In short, this deal takes North Korea back to where it was in 2008, before it kicked out international inspectors from Yongbyon and walked out of the six-party confab in Beijing.

The new arrangement hardly gives reason for Washington, Seoul or Tokyo to breathe a sigh of relief. Indeed, there’s only a guarded optimism, given the history of North Korea’s duplicity and bad faith. “It’s a modest first step in the right direction,” was the cautious statement from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In Seoul, a foreign ministry official described the agreement as the first of many doors leading to resumption of six-party talks.

Taking a closer look at the terms of the agreement, officials in Seoul say they already find potential pitfalls: While the North Korean statement underscores demands for lifting sanctions and provision of a lightwater reactor – originally agreed to by the U.S. as it would be hard to divert for weapons use – at the stage of the next round of six-party talks, it does not mention disclosing secret underground nuclear facilities.

The only site specifically mentioned in the U.S. statement was the uranium-enrichment facility at the Yongbyon complex, Seoul officials said. This could keep disclosure limited to Yongbyon, already known, thus allowing the North a showcase as was done with the 5-negawatt site in previous inspections.

The large centrifuge collection facility at Yongbyon is not much of a secret: U.S. nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University had a tour in November 2010 when he visited North Korea. According to senior security officials in Seoul, there are at least four other suspect underground facilities they understand are used for uranium-enrichment activities, mostly located near the China border, presumably as way of making potential U.S. bombing raids politically hazardous.

Indeed, China is the only party that appears excited over this agreement being potentially fruitful. No sooner had the agreement been announced, than Hong Lei, Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesman, commented that it was a start of “serious and constructive” dialogue.

He might just well have added that Beijing was fully behind Kim Jong Un’s position on the nuclear issue. After denying the North’s nuclear program as fiction for years, Beijing now limits its role to repeating bland commitment to a nuclear-free peninsula. China increasingly must keep North Korea afloat as a nation. As a major patron on the international stage, China no longer cares to conceal its protective role over North Korea’s errant military behaviors. At the UN Security Council, China refuses to endorse resolutions condemning the North’s nuclear tests, or attacks on a South Korean warship and artillery shelling of Yeonpyong Island, killing 50 people altogether in 2010. In defiance of a UN resolution sanctioning arms supply to Pyongyang, China continues to send military vehicles and fuel so that the North Korea can maintain force along the border with South Korea. Lately, China’s role as an economic lifeline has only grown, as it supplies several hundred thousand tons of food aid that helps feed the North Korean army.

These military and political ties have had the effect of undermining Seoul’s multifarious relations with China, with which South Korea runs a substantial bilateral trade worth more than U.S.$200 billion U.S. a year, mostly in Korea’s favor. While economically beneficial to Seoul, this trade imbalance puts the Lee Myung Bak administration on the political defensive at home. With Beijing constantly breathing over his shoulder, President Lee has denied a visa to the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama and another visit from a Xinjiang Uighur separatist representative.

Other areas of people-to-people diplomacy are also fraying. Incursions of Chinese fishing fleets into South Korean waters last year caused repeated clashes with Korean coastal patrols. After two Korean coast guardsmen were killed by Chinese resisting arrest with picks and axes, Korean authorities issued orders for the guard to fire if in danger, touching off emotional attacks on South Korea in Chinese state media.

By and large, South Koreans regard China’s close association with the Pyongyang regime as the price of political alliance and geographic proximity. What bothers many, however, is Chinese support for Pyongyang’s totalitarian system at the expense of human rights, as evident in a growing number of young protesters outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul. One parliamentarian held an 11-day hunger strike in front of the Chinese embassy, protesting Beijing’s insistence on sending back about 30 North Korean defectors who had crossed into its territory. Hundreds, including movie stars, hold daily rallies denouncing the Chinese government, demanding that the defectors be allowed to go to South Korea in accordance with international practices governing refuges. The defectors remain in China for now.

China maintains the defectors are economic migrants, illegal border crossers, not refugees as defined under the UN High Commission for Refugees. In collaboration with security agents from Pyongyang, Chinese border authorities return up to 8000 North Korean defectors each year. Once sent back, defectors are sentenced to years in detention camps, tortured or even publicly executed to warn others. With punishment so severe, many defectors rely on underground support networks, travelling thousands of kilometers disguised as Chinese, to reach Laos, Vietnam or Thailand.

In Seoul in late February, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reaffirmed the principle of handling defectors on a case-by-case review. Some receive humanitarian considerations, while others are treated as bona fide refugees. But Yang issued a stern warning that South Korea should not politicize the plights of defectors or internationalize their cases at UN and other agencies. To many Korean protesters, that sounded like Old Imperial China lording over hapless Koreans.

In the long run, China’s position on North Korea’s nuclear issue will test the strength of Seoul’s relations with Beijing. No one here buys China’s argument that it has no leverage over the Pyongyang regime, and some associate this view with China’s recent refusal to intervene and stop the mass killings inside Syria.

Closer to home, with China backing succession of the Kim dynasty, continuing its lifeline, more Koreans regard China not as a responsible guardian of international order but a cynical and selfish power.

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