China, North Korea no longer close as 'lips and teeth'

This weekend's 50th anniversary of the Korean armistice will be quieter.

Hong Lu spent the Korean War embedded in the front lines - on the Chinese side. Mr. Hong reported for "Battlefield," one of dozens of small Chinese army newspapers that were printed every three days on portable presses lugged into forward positions. Earlier this week he donned his army fatigues for a visiting reporter and thumbed through a collection of black-and-white photos: In this one he holds a captured American carbine, in that one he's behind rocks in the 1953 summer campaign - which claimed many of the estimated 360,000 Chinese troops that died in the Koreas.

Friday Hong left Beijing by train for North Korea with a handful of other veterans to remember a war that for him is clothed in patriotic glory and youthful passion - but whose underlying causes are now in question in a China that is subtly but palpably recalibrating relations with North Korea.

This Sunday marks the 50th armistice anniversary of a war that never really ended. The armistice, which ironically was called "temporary" by both sides in 1953, comes amid warnings by North Korea that it may declare itself a nuclear state as the US and regional governments scramble to bring the regime into talks.

Yet geopolitical changes after Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq, as well as changes China, are bringing shifts in China's attitude toward their Korean neighbors, particularly in recent months.

Partly because of $40 billion in economic trade with South Korea, and partly because of fears of a nuclear Korea as well as an undercurrent of grudges in high circles here about an "ungrateful" and manipulative North - Beijing has been allowing a more critical internal dialogue on the North, sources say.

China's evolving views on the North, and its warmer working relations with the South, have even contributed to Beijing becoming something of an "honest broker" in diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang.

"The central government has changed its attitude in certain respects toward North Korea," says a leading Chinese historian, who requested he not be identified. "For example, the government is allowing a more open discussion of the war, and of our relations with the North."

Revisionism

Historical revisions, for example, are extremely sensitive in communist nations; they can indicate mistakes by revered leaders, or anger important allies. Only recently has China backed off its claim, taught to students for decades, that the bloody and inconclusive Korean War was brought about by a South Korean attack on the North. Second-year high school history texts in Beijing now read that "on June 25, [1950], the Korean Civil War broke out" - leaving even the causes of the war unexplained.

Among Chinese intellectuals and scholars it is widely known, dating to the opening of the Soviet archives in Moscow, that the North attacked the South after extensive consultations with Joseph Stalin, and later with Mao Zedong. This represents a major change in Chinese understanding of the war.

Then there was the sentencing two weeks ago of Yang Bin, a tulip tycoon once thought to be the second-richest man in China, to 18 years in prison. Mr. Yang was Kim Jong Il's handpicked overseer of a special economic zone to be started on China's border. China privately told Pyongyang not to employ Yang, but was ignored, sources say. Yang was then arrested and tried for fraud in China - though the timing and public nature of his lengthy sentence was widely interpreted here as a not-so-subtle signal to Pyongyang.

Like lips and teeth

To be sure, the relations between China and North Korea, described for years by propaganda as being "closer than lips and teeth," are complex and sensitive. China has stoutly resisted UN sanctions on North Korea. Beijing clearly wants a North Korea that is stable, and that is a buffer against US influence on the entire peninsula, sources say.

China has counseled Kim Jong Il privately again and again to undergo the kind of economic reforms that have given China new clout in Asia. Kim two years ago was whisked by secret train to view the Shanghai stock exchange and the city's futuristic skyline - a visit designed to showcase the potential of reform.

But so far Kim has refused to conduct such reforms. Chinese who received a patriotic pro-North education in the 70s or 80s have often been dismayed or disillusioned when traveling to the neighboring communist state. They are bothered by the rigidity of the political system, the decaying infrastructure, and especially the impoverishment of common people.

"We go to North Korea and we can see ourselves in the 1970s," says one political scientist. "We see bad conditions. We ask the North to change, to reform, but they don't. Then they criticize us - when they are dependent on our oil and energy!"

At the same time, many younger Chinese identify more closely with South Korea. China's coastal economy, with cheap labor and high-quality manufacturing from Shanghai down to Shenzen in the South, puts China in a league with Japan and South Korea in terms of future capability. South Korean pop groups, TV shows, design, clothes, and new art and culture are prized by Chinese kids. "There's a 'Korea Cool' that is being imported by both Japan and China," argues a European diplomat here.

Twenty years ago Korean War anniversaries were often attended by press declarations, flag ceremonies, and public shows of support for North Korea. Two years ago China conducted a large celebration for the 50th anniversary of the war's outbreak.

But this year, with China's central role in the nuclear crisis, and a lengthy visit by South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun to his new Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao - "the celebrations of the 50th anniversary will be private and indoors," says a senior adviser to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Chinese veterans of the Korean war have complained, often loudly enough to be heard, that there are no Chinese symbols or representatives at the Korean War memorial hall in Pyongyang. Last year brought a complaint that there was no Chinese flag on the North's side in Panmunjom, the site on Sunday of a commemorative event by US and UN forces. Last week, North Korea demanded the cancellation of the event, calling it a "farce."

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