Beijing’s Pyongyang fatigue

Beijing’s Pyongyang fatigue

Is China through with North Korea? That’s the Guardian‘s takeaway from the exchanges between American diplomats and their Chinese and South Korean counterparts in the first batches of State Department cables released by Wikileaks on Sunday and Monday. “China has signalled its readiness to accept Korean reunification and is privately distancing itself from the North Korean regime,” Simon Tisdall writes, and goes on to note evidence of “China’s shift:” Nods of approval from Chinese officials for a single Korea governed from Seoul, expressions of alarm from Beijing about Pyongyang’s 2009 missile tests, and a Chinese official’s complaint that Kim Jong-il’s regime is behaving like a “spoiled child.”

It’s all in there — but sifting through the Wikileaks cables, that reading strikes me as a bit breathless. It’s true that there are a couple of significant nods toward the idea of reunification. One comes in a 2009 meeting between Richard E. Hoagland and Cheng Guoping, respectively the American and Chinese ambassadors to Kazakhstan, at a hotel restaurant in the capital city of Astana. (Hoagland, incidentally, is a great reporter — his account of the meeting is some of the best reading in the Wikileaks files.) “When asked about the reunification of Korea,” Hoagland writes, “Guoping said China hopes for peaceful reunification in the long-term, but he expects the two countries to remain separate in the short-term.”

The other is some intelligence relayed from South Korean then-Vice Foreign Minister Chun Yung-woo, who told U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens that Chinese officials “would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a ‘benign alliance’ — as long as Korea was not hostile towards China.” The breaking point, Chun reportedly told Stephens, was North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test, after which Chinese officials were increasingly willing to “face the new reality” that North Korea had outlived its usefulness as a buffer between Chinese and American forces. Chun (in Stephens’s paraphrase) notes that the “tremendous trade and labor-export opportunities for Chinese companies” in a newly opened North Korea might would make reunification easier to swallow, and points out that in any case, “China’s strategic economic interests now lie with the United States, Japan, and South Korea — not North Korea.”

Otherwise, Beijing’s sharpest words — such as Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei’s remark that the Kim regime is acting like a “spoiled child” trying to get the attention of the “adult” United States — came mostly in the wake of Pyongyang’s April 2009 missile test, in the context of Beijing’s efforts to engage Washington in bilateral talks with Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il’s principal diplomatic goal at the time. Beijing’s emissaries mostly just seem to be trying to keep the Americans at the table.

David E. Sanger’s take in the New York Times better captures the essence of the cables, which is to say their ambiguity — based on the selective evidence here, Beijing seems only somewhat less in the dark about what exactly is going on in Pyongyang than North Korea’s enemies. Other corners of the Wikileaks trove are rich in plot and detail: the Obama administration’s slow disenchantment with Turkey, byzantine Azeri-Iranian money laundering schemes, Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh’s entanglements with the U.S. military. The North Korean cables are mostly a lot of chatter around the edges of a giant question mark. As Sanger writes, they “are long on educated guesses and short on facts, illustrating why their subject is known as the Black Hole of Asia.” The dominant mood of the Chinese diplomats who appear throughout them is exhaustion — a sense, plenty familiar in Washington and Seoul, that no one really knows what to do next.