North Korea Tests China and the World

By Shim Jae Hoon
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In truth, neither the policy of restraint nor the six-party talks chaired by Beijing off and on over the past decade have produced a breakthrough. The North repeatedly accepts aid, then backs off from obligations. Almost word for word, Hong contradicted the North's stated position on the nuclear issue. The gap between what he said and China's persistent refusal to use its leverage for taming the North's nuclear ambitions has raised question over Beijing's assertion and global influence.

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The foreign ministry statement is the only indication of Kim's reaction to China's UN vote. One can assume that the North would not make that challenge if it weren't ready to stand up to Beijing. Kim exploits his geopolitical worth just as his grandfather played China against the USSR during the Sino-Soviet ideological conflict. Mao entered the Korean War as a way of stopping MacArthur's advances into China. Beijing may oppose the North's nuclearisation, but would not contribute to ending the Pyongyang regime, thus sharing borders with South Korea.

While China's credibility runs low in Seoul, President-elect Park has no alternative but to try using the China window to cope with each nuclear crisis. China as a Security Council member unhesitantly uses veto power on behalf of North Korea. Besides being the North's largest source of food and energy aid, China is also Seoul's biggest export market for Seoul. "China has a crucial role to play in making North Korea as a responsible member of the international community," Park pleaded to a Chinese envoy last week. In Beijing, receiving Park's special emissary within hours of the North's blistering threats, China's Xi offered blandly: "it is the consistent position of China that denuclearization and prevention of the spread of weapons of mass destruction is essential for the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula."

Park's policy is to keep the door open for dialogue and providing emergency humanitarian aid when necessary. While pushing for gradual opening of dialogue, Park issued a stern warning that her government will firmly respond to additional military provocations, such as the North's 2010 sinking of a South Korean navy vessel that killed 50 sailors. "There must be assured consequences for actions that breaches the peace," she wrote for Foreign Affairs in September/October 2011.

That stick-and-carrot appraoch is welcomed by the Obama administration. A smooth Seoul-Washington security consultation could see turbulence if Senator John Kerry, nominated as US secretary of state, advocates direct talks between the US and the North - especially if Seoul is left out of the bilateral process. If confirmed, Kerry is expected to review options.

If the North proceeds with testing another device, possibly with enriched uranium, as analysts speculate, this would be another wakeup call for Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. Such a test would lead the US to seek stronger cooperation from China in confronting the North's threat.

More than the US, China could find such a bomb to be a game changer, forcing it to reconsider its benign stance.

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Shim Jae Hoon in a Seoul-based journalist. © 2013 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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