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North Korea a hard nut to crack for China
Publication Date : 05-03-2013
The success of North Korea's third nuclear test last month and its warning of more to come this year show that China's policy on the Korean Peninsula has been an abject failure.
While the world swiftly condemned Pyongyang's "provocative act", the Chinese leadership appeared deeply split over what should be Beijing's appropriate response.
The split led Xinhua news agency and the Global Times, both official mouthpieces of the Chinese government, to publish diametrically opposite editorials on handling North Korea.
The Global Times considered the test to be a failure of China's policy and urged Beijing to signal its disapproval by cutting aid.
Xinhua, however, saw nothing wrong in China's policy of resolving problems through peaceful dialogue and said Beijing should stick to it. It also argued that sanctions would be counter-productive.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry's response on February 12, the same day as the test, showed a departure from previous statements issued after the tests in 2006 and 2009.
While the earlier statements had the sentence that "China will work unswervingly towards (resolving the problem through peaceful dialogue)", the latest one did not.
This omission was a tacit admission by Beijing of its failure to broker a peaceful resolution of the North Korea issue through the six-party framework - comprising the two Koreas, China, the United States, Japan and Russia - that it instituted 10 years ago. It means that Beijing might have to find other ways to resolve the problem.
The February 12 nuclear test spelt failure for China in several ways.
First, it dashed Beijing's strategic aim of ensuring the Korean Peninsula remains nuclear-free.
A nuclearised Pyongyang poses as much of a threat to China's national security as the US-Japan- South Korea alliance. The North had hinted to the US that its nuclear arsenal could be "pointed towards the west", meaning China.
After spending the past six decades bolstering the North's security and propping up its weak economy, Beijing now finds itself a likely target of its nuclearised ally.
Second, Beijing could be drawn unwittingly into a conflict or major confrontation with the US.
A treaty with the North that obliges China to go to its aid in the event of an attack seems to have only emboldened Pyongyang to act recklessly, often without Beijing's prior knowledge.
Third, all its efforts to shore up the fragile North Korean economy in the hope of building a special relationship with Pyongyang have come to naught.
Scanty data shows that about a decade ago, China provided roughly 80 per cent of North Korea's total petroleum imports, 92 per cent of international food aid, and 97 per cent of total foreign investment capital.
Recently, to ensure the smooth transition of the Kim regime from father Jong Il to son Jong Un, Beijing doubled the normal amount of non-reimbursable grain aid from 100,000 to 200,000 tonnes, according to a report by South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo in March last year.
Given the North's heavy reliance on China, the world has long expected Beijing to use it as leverage to rein in its wayward neighbour or that Pyongyang would show its patron some respect.
Quite the contrary. Most recently, Kim Jong Un sent New Year greeting cards to more than 30 leaders around the world, including United Nations secretary- general Ban Ki Moon. The notable exceptions were China and Russia, also an ally.
Although there have been constant calls within China to get tough with North Korea, it is difficult for the Chinese Communist Party to change its approach.
The Korean Peninsula has historically been a factor in China's security calculus.
After all, China fought two wars there, first with Japan in 1894 and then with the United States in 1950.
Recognising that North Korea acts as a buffer zone, Chinese communist leaders have unstintingly pumped in money, food and other aid over the past few decades to prop up the pro-Beijing regime.
Ideologically, Beijing and Pyongyang share the same Marxist-Leninist origins.
Outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao once said controversially that "apart from being backward economically, North Korea has always been correct politically".
This was why die-hard Maoists in China sent congratulatory messages to the North after last month's nuclear test, hailing it as another success story of Mao Zedong Thought.
They likened it to the nuclear achievements that China itself had made in the 1960s, a period of extreme isolation and economic difficulties.
Towards North Korea, China's hands are tied, constrained by historical and ideological reasons.
Until it can recalibrate its Pyongyang policy, the North will remain a hard nut to crack.