While China and North Korea solidified their relationship in a quick visit Thursday to Pyongyang by Dai Bingguo, China’s highest-ranking foreign affairs official, the US shored up its trilateral relationship with South Korea and Japan. To the disappointment of South Koreans as well as Americans, analysts saw no sign of significant Chinese pressure on North Korea to pull back from confrontation with the South.
The cordial tone of official Chinese and North Korean dispatches contradicted what many see as the wishful thinking of South Korea’s national security adviser, Chun Yung-woo.
Mr. Chun was quoted in a US document released by WikiLeaks as telling the US ambassador to South Korea, Kathleen Stephens, in February 2010 that China “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 toward China.”
WikiLeaks also released a separate US cable quoting a Chinese vice foreign minister, He Yafei, as saying in 2009 that North Korea’s behavior in conducting missile tests that April was that of “a spoiled child.”
Two high-level trips by Americans next week are expected to elicit some understanding of the depth of real attitudes in Beijing and Pyongyang. James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, travels to Beijing to impress upon the Chinese the need to hold North Korea in check if the Chinese really want “stability,” as they often say.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is planning to visit North Korea next week. Mr. Richardson, who has visited several times over the years, has been a strong advocate of “engagement” with North Korea and is expected to try to lay the groundwork for renewed dialogue between North Korea and the US.
At the same time, Dai, reputed as a highly skilled negotiator on close terms with China’s President Hu Jintao, is assumed by South Korean officials to have stressed the advantages for North Korea of increasing Chinese aid and trade.
A report by China’s Xinhua news agency about Dai and Kim Jong-il reaching “a consensus on bilateral relations and the situation on the Korean peninsula” dramatized China’s historic relationship with North Korea.
The report did not mention the Nov. 23 North Korean attack on Yeonpyong Island in the Yellow Sea. It did, however, serve as a reminder of an alliance that dates from the Korean War when Chinese troops drove out American and South Korean forces that had advanced to the Yalu River border.
The timing was significant since Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, during his visits to South Korea and Japan this week, spoke out about China’s role in spurring on North Korea.
Wednesday in Seoul, Mullen said China had a “unique responsibility” to curb North Korea. His language grew stronger when he got to Japan. He blamed “volatility” in the region on “the reckless behavior of the North Korean regime, enabled by their friends in China.”
Mullen reportedly received a cool response in Japan to a suggestion that US, South Korean, and Japanese forces cooperate in trilateral military exercises.
The US has separate alliances with both South Korea and Japan, but there is deep historical opposition in both countries, dating from Japan’s colonial grip on the entire Koran peninsula for 35 years until the end of World War II in 1945, to an alliance between Korea and Japan.
In Seoul, Mullen hinted that the US would not oppose South Korean air strikes against targets in North Korea in response to another attack. In talks with his South Korean counterpart, General Han Min-koo, Mullen is believed to have discouraged any move that would risk escalation of tensions, much less a real conflict.
The South Korean response was not clear. General Han, visiting Yeonpyeong Island, told South Korean marines, “I will completely crush the enemy with combined forces in coordination with the United States.”