KONGFor the United States, the North Korean regime makes a credible
member of George W. Bush's pantheon of evil. For South Korea, the North is a
source of endless frustration and occasional danger. For Japan, Pyongyang's
missiles are crude reminders of the holes in its self-defense capability.
But North Korea is now a bigger a problem
for its last remaining friend, China, than for its foes. Irritation with
Pyongyang is not yet official, but in private, and in the popular mind, there is
contempt along with occasional flashes of anger at its stubborn refusal to learn
from China and change its ways.
What can China do about this prickly and
recalcitrant regime which combines an extreme version of Korean nationalism with
a Communist elite's ruthless commitment to its own survival? Recent incidents
have underlined how much of a liability Pyonyang has become. North Korean asylum
seekers in Beijing have repeatedly embarrassed China, and despite the huge
increase in security around embassies in Beijing such events are certain to
recur. China has cracked down on South Korean and foreign church groups
encouraging asylum-seeking through China, but the pressure will not go away.
China has also been forced to tighten
security along the border with the North, but knows that it cannot be sealed.
Indeed, the porous border is to the advantage of the North, which is content to
export its problems of feeding and clothing its population.
China conspicuously failed to take sides
over the recent North-South naval clash. It saw this for what it was - a
diversion from the South's moment of triumph in hosting and reaching the
semifinal of the World Cup. This incident was never going to lead to a wider
war, but it reminded China of the potential vulnerability of its Beijing
Olympics to events on the nearby peninsula.
More immediately, the clash offered a new
threat to the South's "sunshine" policy, which Beijing has been at pains to
encourage. It could lead to victory for the conservative Grand National Party in
the presidential election in December and a shift by Seoul toward the United
States, with which relations have been uncomfortable since Bush came to office.
Beijing is also concerned that lack of
reform in the North could eventually lead to the collapse of the regime and a
German-style instant reunification, whether the South wants it or not. China is
wary of Korean reunification, especially at a time when U.S. troops are still in
the South. Even if U.S. troops were then withdrawn and Korea came more within
China's sphere of influence than that of America or Japan, China would have
worries about the integrity of its own frontiers, given the number of ethnic
Koreans, with their fierce sense of identity, on its side of the border.
China has continued to support the North
with food, fuel and fertilizer to help keep the regime afloat and avoid any
sudden and disruptive change. It has used its relationship with Pyongyang very
effectively on the diplomatic front, wringing concessions from Washington on
other issues in return for help, real or imagined, in pressing the North on
nuclear and missile questions.
But China has had scant success in
persuading the North to change its domestic policies. Beijing has access to the
leadership - which is more than anyone else has - but little influence. Last
year Kim Jong Il visited China's showcases of economic reform, Shenzhen and
Shanghai. He was surely impressed. But for survivalists like Kim, real change is
So is there anything China can do? Should
it take some risks and threaten withdrawal of economic support if there is not
economic reform and a serious response to the South's sunshine policy? Are there
factions within army and party in the North which it can back in an effort to
spur change? Or is domestic politics in the North too obscure, or nationalism so
strong that any Chinese attempts to meddle would backfire?
For now China is preoccupied with its own
party congress and new leadership. There is policy inertia in China itself. Many
in the party and the army would regard any attempt to force change or cut the
North Koreans adrift as strategically dangerous. For them the present situation
is uncomfortable, but tolerably so.
However, even conservatives recognize
that China's support for its bizarre Communist friend and neighbor fits ill with
the expansion of China's influence in a prospering, trade-oriented East Asia.
The rest of us should stop worrying about Pyongyang. Its weaponry is as
overblown as its rhetoric. North Korea is a nettle that China has to grasp.