North Korean leader Kim Jong Il met with high-level Chinese officials on Thursday in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, where China reaffirmed its relationship with its fellow communist state and maintained a neutral stance on North Korea's attack on South Korean forces last month.
North Korea, which hasn't explained why it shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula further by saying that the island is surrounded by North Korea-controlled waters. The internationally determined border is several miles to the north of the island, reports The Wall Street Journal.
China's stance has irked many American leaders and their allies who hoped that China, North Korea’s only ally, would apply pressure on Mr. Kim to stop his hawkish policies, reports BeijingNews.net.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen was among the loudest critics, sharply condemning China for its apparent unconditional support of North Korea. He had hoped that Chinese officials would express public disapproval of the North's Nov. 23 artillery strike. The shelling was the most violent exchange since the Korean War ended in 1953.
“The Chinese have enormous influence over the North, influence that no other nation on Earth enjoys,” Mullen was quoted as saying in an article in the Los Angeles Times. “And yet, despite a shared interest in reducing tensions, they appear unwilling to use it…. Even tacit approval of Pyongyang's brazenness leaves all their neighbors asking, ‘What will be next?’”
China has defended its support of the North, calling Mullen’s remarks an “accusation,” reports the BBC. Jiang Yu, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry also criticized Mullen asking what exactly he had done to create “peace and stability in the region.”
Next week a team of US diplomats will travel to China to discuss the shelling incident and the subsequent tensions. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, who will lead the delegation, has tried to move the focus away from the friction between US and China, saying leaders in Beijing can play a “critical role” in defusing the situation. He added that the US and China have a common interest in finding a peaceful resolution to this situation, reports Al Jazeera.
President Obama spoke with Chinese President Hu Jintao over the phone on Monday. The two discussed North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and the worsened security situation on the peninsula following the shelling. The US has also pledged to increase joint training exercises with South Korean forces, reports The New York Times.
In an editorial for The Korea Times, Zhu Feng, deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, writes that the latest WikiLeaks cables reveal that China would be willing to accept the reunification of Korea in favor of the South but for the American military presence. He speculates that China’s continued support of North Korea is an attempt to keep the communist state as a buffer between it and US forces currently stationed on the peninsula.
“Thus China does what it must, shoring up the Kim family dynasty to prevent Korea from reunifying on South Korean terms. Indeed, the controversy in Chinese eyes is not really about Korean reunification ― few in Beijing speculate that the endgame will be otherwise ― but to what extent reunification can be achieved without damaging China’s security concerns,” writes Mr. Feng.