Foreign Policy Blogs

Wiki Leaks, China, and Don Kim

Yeonpyeong Island After North Korean Attack
Yeonpyeong Island After North Korean Attack

Previously, this blog has examined the complex dysfunctional relationship , known as Sino-North Korean relations.   Here is a quick recap: China is the top investor and subsidizer of North Korea, but the relationship is indirectly reciprocal. The Kim family mafia, rulers of North Korea, with Kim Jong Il as the head (The Don) gets a benefactor that will allow it to maintain its strangle hold over the country.  In return, China gets a buffer-state between itself and American friendly South Korea, plus a bargaining chip to leverage  in negotiations with its neighbors and the U.S.  The calculus for China is simple, is the security buffer it gets from keeping the Kim Family Mafia in business worth the flack it receives from its neighbors in the region (and the U.S.), when North Korea decides to “act out”.  So far the answer appears to be “shi (yes)”, which gives Don Kim plenty of leeway.  Although the U.S. and its allies put pressure on China to control North Korea, it is clear the situation is not so simple for China.  What the U.S. is really demanding is that China potentially compromise it’s security and growing maritime sphere of influence.

Having felt ignored by the Obama Administration, that has refused to negotiate  until good faith actions are made, North Korea, upped the ante over the last few weeks].  First, by shelling the South Korean controlled Yellow Sea island of   Yeonpyeong Island, and then unveiling a new uranium processing facility, which can easily be converted to process highly enriched weapons grade uranium.  Once again, Kim Jong-il has cried for attention, but this time he will not be ignored.

However, what does China really think of its capricious ally behind closed doors?  The Wiki Leaks may give some insight.

According to cables obtained by WikiLeaks, South Korea’s then vice foreign minister, Chun Yung-woo, said earlier this year that senior Chinese officials (whose names are redacted in the cables) had told him they believed Korea should be reunified under Seoul’s control, and that this view was gaining ground with the leadership in Beijing.Chun was quoted at length in a cable sent by the U.S. ambassador in Seoul, Kathleen Stephens, earlier this year. He is reported as saying that “the North had already collapsed economically and would collapse politically two to three years after the death of (leader) Kim Jong-il.


Chun, who has since become South Korea’s National Security Adviser, dismissed the prospect of China’s military intervention in the event of a North Korean collapse, noting that “China’s strategic economic interests now lie with the United States, Japan, and South Korea — not North Korea.


In a separate cable from January this year, then-South Korean Foreign Mnister Yu Myung-Hwan is quoted as telling U.S. diplomats that “the North Korean leader [Kim Jong Il] needed both Chinese economic aid and political support to stabilize an ‘increasingly chaotic’ situation at home.”

The cables suggest China is frustrated in its relationship with Pyongyang. One from April 2009 quoted Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei as saying that “North Korea wanted to engage directly with the United States and was therefore acting like a “spoiled child” in order to get the attention of the “adult.” The cable continued: “China therefore encouraged the United States, ‘after some time,’ to start to re-engage the DPRK.”

China’s general policy has been to maintain good relations with it’s immediate neighbors, and if it can, keep them in its sphere of influence.  However,  there is speculation that if Don Kim cannot hold his regime together , or in the event of his death, his son is too weak to take the reins, Beijing has China-friendly North Koreans ready to step in.  This is another reason why  China does not want to push the Kim regime too far by coming out too strongly against them publicly.  This might push a desperate Kim into the arms of another regional power, namely the  U.S., but possibly Russia.  Worse, it may cause a collapses that China cannot  manage.   China’s past love for the Kim family, as ideological allies, has long sense passed, but he is still “the best game in town”.   What’s more important is making sure North Korea exists and it is China-friendly.   Some commentators have suggested that the the U.S., China, South Korea, and Japan should form a working group to address possible “Post-Kim” North Korea, but China will be unlikely to do this, because China is already making plans.

As always, the U.S. is demanding that China get tough on N.Korea, also as typical, China has done nothing noticeable, or maybe it’s a a difference of approach and desired outcome:

One former Chinese official with close ties to the government dismissed the American approach last week as characteristically legalistic. The former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the topic, said China’s strategy was to reassure the North Koreans about their security, not lecture them about diplomatic obligations.

Not satisfied, the U.S. said that it will not give further concessions to  North Korea, and that if the Kim Regime continued to behave provocatively the U.S. will commit to more joint military exercises with South Korea  in the Yellow Sea, putting more security pressure on China, which does not want a U.S. presence so close to it’s territorial waters.  In fact, China’s initial response to N.Korea’s shelling of the South was a complaint about America’s military activities in the region:

The only Chinese complaint issued after the Yeonpyeong artillery attack was directed at the United States—for sending the aircraft carrier USS George Washington into waters near South Korea. U.S. carriers stay a long way from the 12-mile limit of territorial waters, but China keeps illegally trying to claim control of much more—a 200 nautical mile “exclusive economic zone.” Restraining North Korea is simply not a priority for Beijing.

Yesterday the U.S., Japan, and South Korea made a joint statement reiterating their stand on North Korea and calling on China to take action against North Korea:

Calling on Beijing to play its “special role” in the effort to sustain peace in the Northeast Asia region, Clinton, Maehara, and Kim urged Beijing to restrain Pyongyang and bring calm to the Korean peninsula.

Since the U.S. alliance is clearly not interested in returning to 6-Party talks until North Korea begins to live up to previous agreements it has made, but so far broken, the situation is at an impasse. Tolerance for China’s equivocations and stonewalling seems to be at an end though.  What will the CCP do?  Likely, it will carry on the status quo, but quietly inform Kim that it can not continue to protect him.  It might also increase investment in North Korea to smooth things over in the short term.