China urges dialogue to resolve Korean tensions

 

CHINA URGED greater diplomatic efforts to resolve the burgeoning crisis on the Korean peninsula yesterday, calling on all regional powers involved in the issue to gather around a table.

Signs that China was taking on a more significant diplomatic role came as leaked US diplomatic cables showed that Beijing’s frustration with communist ally North Korea – the two ideological brothers are seen as being “as close as lips and teeth” – was growing.

Nuclear-armed Pyongyang last week fired an artillery barrage at the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing four people, including two civilians. The assault, combined with the shock testing of nuclear weapons last year, are said to have angered China.

Diplomatic efforts remain up in the air, however. Japan has told China that now is not the time to hold talks among the six countries co-operating to seek an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear programme, Kyodo news service reported yesterday.

While the cables released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks show that China could be less enamoured of North Korea than previously, for the time being the public focus from Beijing is on expanding six-party denuclearisation talks, involving both Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the US, to include broader issues of regional stability.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing: “Ensuring the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula is the shared responsibility of all sides. We call on all sides to do more to stabilise the situation.” China’s diplomatic reputation has been boosted by its role as honest broker in the six-nation talks.

Diplomats speculated in the cables leaked by WikiLeaks that Beijing would accept a future Korean peninsula unified under South Korean rule.

The received wisdom has long been that China is interested in maintaining North Korea as a buffer state between it and South Korea, which has thousands of US troops and is a loyal American ally.

Choe Tae Bok, chairman of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly, is currently on a five-day visit to China.

Beijing is also said to fear a massive influx of refugees in the event of regime collapse in North Korea.

China has generally shrugged off calls to use its influence to force Pyongyang to behave in a more acceptable way, and has vetoed efforts to sanction the North harshly.

While most analysts agree that China is unlikely to readily embrace a neighbouring state with such a huge level of US influence – South Korea and the US were partners in the 1950-1953 war, against a North Korea backed by China – there are growing signs of irritation in China with North Korea’s erratic and aggressive behaviour.

According to a leaked memo, then-deputy foreign minister He Yafei told a US official in April last year that Pyongyang was acting like a “spoiled child” by staging a missile test in an attempt to achieve its demand of bilateral talks with Washington.

The North Koreans also warned that joint US-South Korean naval drills this week had pushed the peninsula to the “brink of war”, although China has been relatively quiet on the drills.

And there were clues in the official Chinese media that attitudes to the North might be changing.

“The DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] seemed to deliberately strike against human lives, which was completely excessive, disproportionate, and outrageous,” wrote Shen Dingli, a respected columnist, on the chingorg.cn website. “Though matters currently seem under control, such incidents pose a threat to the stability of the region. Responsible stakeholders should work together to ease tension, and put in place mechanisms to minimise the chances of a rerun of such dangerous episodes,” Shen wrote.

Former South Korean vice-foreign minister Chun Yung-woo is quoted by WikiLeaks as telling US ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens in February last year that Korea “would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the US in a ‘benign alliance’ as long as Korea was not hostile towards China.” Viewed longer term, it appears extremely unlikely that China is ready to go to war to prop up the regime of the country’s leader Kim Jong-il if the government should collapse.

There is a lot of talk about this scenario at the moment amid rumours that the country’s military is less than ecstatic about the choice of his son Kim Jong-un as the next leader of the government.

China’s links with South Korea are also very strong – Koreans are among one of the biggest groups of foreigners in the country and China is said to be fond of the South Korean model of economic development, which saw it switch from a ruined, largely agrarian economy at the end of the Korean War in 1953 to one of the world’s fastest growing major developed economies this year.