An expert's point of view on a current event.

China Help with North Korea? Fuggedaboutit!

Dear pundits: Stop begging Beijing to rein in Kim Jong Il. It ain’t gonna happen.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Some years ago, much to my surprise, I persuaded FP's then editor Moises Naim to drop the expression "Fuggedaboutit!" from these august columns. Chirpy is one thing, vulgar another.

Some years ago, much to my surprise, I persuaded FP’s then editor Moises Naim to drop the expression "Fuggedaboutit!" from these august columns. Chirpy is one thing, vulgar another.

It was kind of Venezuela’s former trade minister to heed the sensitivities of a Brit subscriber. But now I repent me. For nothing less emphatic will do to express my profound dissent from one dominant trope in the endless, circular discourse on North Korea, lately amplified by commentators and policymakers who should know better.

You know the tune, so sing along. It goes like this: Call Beijing! Only the Chinese have influence in and on Pyongyang. (They deny it, but we know they’re kidding.) Call yourself a responsible global leader, Comrade Hu? Then rally round, and do your bit. Kim Jong Il and his nukes are as much a threat to you as to the rest of us. And now he’s shelling South Korean civilians! So join us in condemning him, and for God’s sake rein the rogue in. Or words to that effect.

Thus Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, to CNN this week: "I believe that it’s really important that Beijing lead here…. I’ve believed for some time that probably the country that can influence North Korea the most is clearly China … [North Korea] destabilizes the region, and China has as much to lose as anybody in that region with the continuation of this kind of behavior and what the potential might be."

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley echoed this sentiment: "China is pivotal to moving North Korea in a fundamentally different direction …We would hope and expect that China would use that influence, first, to reduce tensions that have arisen from North Korean provocations and then, secondly, [to] continue to encourage North Korea to take affirmative steps to denuclearize."

Hope all you want, P.J. It ain’t gonna happen, at least not the way you put it. Sure, Beijing makes vague noises. "We are ready to make joint efforts," the Foreign Ministry said recently.

But China barely talks the talk, and no way does it walk the walk. Has Washington missed the new lovefest between Pyongyang and Beijing? A friendship forged in blood, as close as lips and teeth. The old slogans and warmth are back. And it’s for real. Better believe it.

We saw it first this summer. Not only did China’s skepticism on the sinking of the Cheonan, the South Korean corvette, let North Korea off the hook, but its hostility to U.S.-South Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea — Chinese coastal waters, apparently — sent the allies scurrying ignominiously to hold their maneuvers on the other side of the peninsula.

(Not this time. As I write the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and its battle group are steaming toward the Yellow Sea, after North Korea’s latest provocation: Tuesday’s fatal and unprovoked thermobaric shelling of civilians on Yeonpyeong Island, in the same waters. Thus far Beijing has not reacted so fiercely again, recognizing perhaps that the United States and South Korea have got to make some show of force — and a show is better than the real thing.)

China’s support of the North on the Cheonan came despite a contretemps between lips and teeth just weeks before. In early May Kim Jong Il flounced home from Beijing a day before he was due to go; leaving the Phibada Opera troupe — Pyongyang’s finest — to perform the gala opening of their version of the Chinese classic "Dream of Red Mansions" for — well, nobody much. No doubt as usual the Dear Mendicant had demanded summat fe nowt, as we say in Yorkshire. And for once, China’s checkbook stayed closed. Lessons have to be taught.

But beggars can’t be choosers, or not when no one else is willing to cough up any more. By August, Kim had seen the light and headed for China again; this time to the northeast. Hu Jintao came to meet him — and his son Kim Jong Un, soon to be unveiled to his country and the world (although the younger Kim wasn’t publicly announced as being on the trip) as the heir apparent.

A deal was struck. China swallowed this dynastic succession, and probably bankrolled the festivities. Every family in North Korea got liquor, pork, and soap; all are luxuries for many.

Barely a month later, as the reptile press — some North Korean barbs are too good not to use — oohed and aahed at the pudgy young general, most missed the one man on the podium not wearing a Kim Il Sung badge. That was China. Specifically Zhou Yongkang: a top Politburo figure with a public security background, and Beijing’s new point man on Pyongyang.

Back in Beijing a week later, Zhou welcomed an unprecedented North Korean delegation: the party bosses from all 11 provinces and cities, led by rising star Mun Kyong Dok, an economist who runs Pyongyang and at 53 is by far the youngest of the new Politburo (he’s an alternate member). This team went on to tour China’s northeast, which featured prominently in a new economic accord signed in early October. In a comparison no one local will be making, any fresh business ties will be the first big boost since Manchukuo days. For a start Heilongjiang, Liaoning, and Jilin provinces will be happy if Pyongyang starts paying for the coal et al that they supply — or at least stops stealing the railway wagons they send it in. There’s quite a ways to go.

October also saw the 60th anniversary of the Chinese People’s Volunteers’ (CPV; old British army joke: I want three volunteers, you, you, and you) entry into the Korean War. That turned the tide, saving Kim Il Sung’s bacon and his infant state from being wiped off the map. It normally rates a few lines in the Pyongyang press, but this year both sides celebrated this fulsomely: "with splendor," gushed the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the North’s official organ.

Seoul, its nose already well out of joint over the Cheonan, seethed when Xi Jinping — tipped as China’s next leader — called the Korean War "a great and just war for safeguarding peace and resisting aggression." Whose aggression, exactly? North Korea invaded the South, and then the CPV helped the Korean People’s Army (KPA) capture Seoul a second time in 1950.

In the North, the most striking event was on Oct. 26. After their Chinese guests had gone home, the Kims father and son plus the KPA top brass made an unprecedented pilgrimage to Hoechang, a valley east of Pyongyang where the CPV had its headquarters — and where its dead lie buried, most notably Mao Zedong’s son. The Kims laid a solemn wreath on Mao Anying’s grave. North Korea doesn’t tend to do grateful, so this was quite an extraordinary gesture.

What does it mean? The Kims are snuggling up to Beijing because there’s no one else left to snuggle up to. They’d rather have rival suitors as well, whom they could play off in time-honored fashion — as Kim Il Sung did in the Sino-Soviet dispute, or more recently between China and South Korea during the latter’s "sunshine" decade of an engagement policy (1998-2007).

But now China is the last man standing. For various reasons, everyone else has taken their bat home and quit the field. Beijing probably can’t believe its luck, if such it be. This could all have been far fiercer, as it fatefully was a century ago when the region’s three whales — China, Russia, and Japan — battled over the shrimp of the dying, introverted Chosun dynasty: the original Hermit Kingdom. (The parallels are striking, but the DPRK is more a scorpion.)

The cast of characters doesn’t change much. For Japan, then-premier Junichiro Koizumi’s bold visit to Pyongyang in 2002, eliciting an amazing admission and apology — North Korea doesn’t say sorry, either — by Kim Jong Il in person for past kidnappings of Japanese, was meant to resolve this issue and lay the ground for diplomatic normalization. But it backfired, since Pyongyang patently wasn’t telling the full story. Bilateral ties have been in free fall ever since, to the point where Japan — once a major trading partner — now bans all commerce with North Korea.

And where did Moscow go? The Soviet Union founded the DPRK — Kim Il Sung came home in 1945 in a Red Army uniform — and funded it unstintingly for almost half a century, even under Mikhail Gorbachev, before abruptly pulling the plug in its own final months in 1991. Enter Russia. President Boris Yeltsin leaned toward Seoul but his successor Vladimir Putin tried to mend fences, meeting Kim JongI Il thrice in successive years. But since then nothing, and minimal trade or investment. Pyongyang owes unpaid billions, so maybe Moscow just gave up. Just one of many puzzles about Russian foreign policy nowadays.

Finally, South Korea. Sunshine was one-sided, but at least it gave Seoul a foot in the door. In 2008 a newly elected right-wing president, Lee Myung-bak, threw it all away by refusing to honor new projects — mostly win-win, like joint shipbuilding — signed by his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun at the second Pyongyang summit in 2007. That wasn’t smart. It doesn’t remotely excuse sinking the Cheonan or shelling Yeonpyeong, but it partly explains them.

But back to China. Even if this trio of potential rivals hadn’t each for their own reasons left the scene, arguably Beijing alone has both the means and motivation to really take North Korea in hand, as I reckon it is now starting to do. This goes beyond the familiar mantra, that China fears above all a North Korean collapse, chaos on its borders, massive refugee flows and so on. (South Korea too has reason to be no keener on that scenario, but it’s hard to know what Lee Myung-bak is trying to achieve.)

I used to think the logic of juche, North Korea’s supposed doctrine of self-reliance — which in practice meant defying everyone while taking their money — was such that in the end Kim Jong Il would irrevocably annoy Beijing as much as all the others. China plays a long game. In less than two decades since it opened formal relations with South Korea — which brusquely ditched Taiwan to do so — trade and other ties have soared. China is now South Korea’s top trade partner and main destination for outward foreign direct investment. More flights out of Incheon head for China than anywhere else.

So the smart thing for China, surely, would be to let the irredeemable North rot to the point of collapse; have the South absorb it German-style, which would keep it busy for quite some time; and lure this unified Korea out of Uncle Sam’s embrace into the neutrality that most Koreans in their heart of hearts have always craved. Shouldn’t be too hard, really.

It might have gone that way, if the balance of various forces — in Beijing, Pyongyang, Seoul and elsewhere — had been even a little different. But they weren’t, and now it won’t. Instead, as the Korea expert Victor Cha — of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and lately of the George W. Bush administration — wrote recently, China has made the strategic decision that a unified Korea which is South Korea writ large, and as such a U.S. ally, goes fundamentally against its interests.

Hence Beijing’s support, or as good as, over the Cheonan and the shelling. China is pursuing its own agenda on North Korea, and no one can stop it. It will tolerate some provocations, to show the Kims they can trust it not to let them down. But there is a limit, and a price or two.

First, Beijing will not pour money into a broken system. North Korea must fix itself first. That means finally embracing markets, as Deng Xiaoping first urged a much younger Kim Jong Il 30 years ago. (Imagine if the Dear Leader had heeded him then.)

Second, the roguery has to stop, if not all right away. That means no more nuclear tests, and in the long run denuclearization — perhaps in exchange for a Chinese security guarantee.

What if the Kims won’t play ball? Then China has its own Kim who will. No. 1 son Kim Jong Nam went strikingly off message last month, raining on little brother’s parade by saying he was against a third generation succession. Who did he say this to? Japan’s Asahi newspaper. Where did he say it? In Beijing, where evidently he still lives — and is protected.

True, a regime so introverted, vicious, and world-historically stupid as North Korea’s could yet foul up. The Kims may chafe and rattle their new cage. It could all go wrong, for China and them.

But if they have an ounce of sense, they must know the old game is up. Militant mendicancy won’t cut it any more; no one will buy that old horse again. There is only China. Meanwhile their hungry subjects watch pirated South Korean DVDs, and grow restive.

Bottom line: North Korea’s nomenklatura needs a sugar daddy. If you were they, on whose tender mercies would you throw yourself: Lee Myung-bak, or Xi Jinping? That’s surely a no-brainer. They know how it went in Germany. Becoming China’s satellite is humiliating — but better than ceasing to exist, in whatever sense.

Finally, should the rest of us mind? We can do precious little anyway. Let the Chinese have the burden of dragging the DPRK into the 21st century; that will keep them busy. It’s galling for South Korea, which claims the whole peninsula. But even in Seoul, if honest, they may breathe a sigh of relief for the poisoned chalice to fall to someone else.

And who knows? A decade or two down the line, a by-then-more-normal and half-rich North Korea may slough off the Chinese yoke and seek unification with the South. For the latter, that’s a more feasible project than right now, which is a case of "one country, two planets."

So frankly, sending the USS George Washington, and all the U.N. resolutions and sanctions, and the Six Party Talks, in fact all the paraphernalia of the past decade and more, are by the by. None of it has worked, and none of it now counts. China has a plan: its own plan. Beijing may go through the motions and play along with our old game a bit, for form’s sake. But the truth is, they have a new game. We shall all have to get used to it, and stop pretending.

<p> Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Britain's Leeds University. </p>

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