Again With the China Meme

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Lee Byung-Chul argues that Beijing has a lot more to do with North Korea’s “peaceful” overtures to South Korea than previously thought.

One of the lessons of this episode is that despite professions of inability to control its client state, China appears now to have demonstrated unrivaled leverage on the North in terms of economic, political and military intervention. In addition to supplying substantial amounts of aid including 90 percent of the North’s oil at sharply lower “friendly prices,” China has co-opted and trained a pro-Chinese cadre of North Korean functionaries and elites in the hopes that they would become collaborators under the coming regime of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s son and presumptive heir. So Beijing is no longer hiding its solid hold over the North.

There is a certain amount of evidence of distrust of China on the part of the North as well, with the Jan. 3 disclosure of a US diplomatic cable by WikiLeaks, in which Hyun Jeong-eun, the chairwoman of Hyundai Group, returned from the North after a 2009 meeting with Kim. In the cable, Kathleen Stephens, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, reported on a breakfast with Hyun in which she said that Kim Jong-Il was disappointed after the North’s second nuclear test in May 2009, when China did not object to a UN Security Council resolution condemning the communist country for the test. China’s foreign ministry also issued a statement expressing opposition to the test.

China appears to believe that in the case of a contingency plan for the collapse of the north’s government, it could thus recruit North Korean military men, using them to virtually rule the Kim regime and its population faster than the US could move into place to support the South to take over. The Chinese leadership correctly judges that South Korea would find it difficult to synchronize with the US. Nor, it is thought, would Japan be much help.

Lee also has a sweeping, revisionist view of sunshine policy politics in South Korea that’s interesting to read.

Much of the north’s heightened provocations over the last year may well have stemmed from a misconception on the part of Kim Jong-il over the death of the so-called Sunshine Policy initiated by two previous presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. That period was the most exciting moment of the inter-Korean relationship, though South Korea’s conservatives have called it the ‘lost decade.’ North Korea was economically remote but was ideologically closer than it had ever been, essentially because of the sunshine engagement policy.

These deliberate and thoughtful presidents believed the landmark policy would benefit not just the liberals in Seoul but mankind at large. Thus, they believed strongly that the broken regime had the ability to stand alone only if South Koreans could heal the scars through economic assistance.

Soon, however, the proponents of the engagement policy started to notice that once again they were minorities in the South’s mainstream political and economic culture. The conservatives attacked the progressives with a viciousness that took their breath away, calling them ‘sticky slime.’ They were deeply angry at liberals’ goal of national reconciliation, insisting that the language of the sunshine policy was not based on the reality of a bellicose North. In the 2007 presidential elections, South Korea returned to its traditional conservative stance, which certainly must have puzzled the Kim Jong-il regime.

Indeed, the progressives should have realized that there was an expiry date. The sunshine policy expired earlier than they expected, but Kim Jong-il himself appears to have thought the policy which had helped to sustain the hopeless regime, was continuing, without knowing that most South Koreans no longer had any interest in the poor neighbor to the North.

North Korea’s continuing provocations were taken as prima facie evidence that there was something wrong with the engagement policy. The much-debated policy now serves as an unwanted baby for the right-wing Lee government, which is innately sceptical of the progress of any inter-Korean relationship.

The tragedy of the dynastic Kims is that they spent the sunshine days in relative -– for a poverty-stricken regime– glory and affluence but are now going through the hard times of ‘strategic patience’ adopted by Washington and Seoul authorities. They never dreamed that the Lee government would reverse the existing inter-Korean relationship in the name of demanding the denuclearization North Korea. Their predictions were wrong.

If this is true, then, the 2011 Joint Editorial reads more like the confused scribblings of a split personality torn between nostalgia for the sunshine policy years and anger over the South Korean conservatives’ triumph over the progressives.

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Filed under: East Asia, Korea Tagged: china, dprk, kim jong il, kim jong un, lee myung bak, north korea, prc, roh moo hyun, South Korea, wikileaks


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