Monday, August 29, 2011

Losing patience with Pyongyang

WikiLeaks: China May Be Fed Up With North Korea

AOL News

TAIPEI, Taiwan (Dec. 3) -- U.S. State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks appear to confirm what many suspected: China is just as fed up with North Korea as the U.S. and other countries, despite its reluctance to speak out publicly.

Beijing is seen as the only government with influence over an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable regime in Pyongyang. It has come under sharp pressure from the U.S. to take a harder line, but so far has appeared reluctant to do so.

The leaked cables appear to show that part of China's strategy is to privately bemoan North Korea's behavior while publicly maintaining a studied neutrality. That has frustrated South Korean and U.S. officials, who want a stronger response to Pyongyang's provocations.

North Korea's recent shelling of a South Korean island near the maritime border shocked the international community, pushing tensions on the Korean peninsula to the brink of war. The attack killed two civilians and two South Korean marines. But Beijing only called for calm from both sides.

And earlier this year, China refused to join the U.S. and other nations in condemning North Korea for an attack on a South Korean navy vessel that killed 46 sailors. A multinational probe pinned the blame on Pyongyang, but China never accepted those findings. Beijing continues to block any action against North Korea at the United Nations.

Experts have long said that China's paramount concern is stability on the Korean peninsula, because it fears a flood of refugees in the event of a North Korean collapse, and also fears the prospect of a U.S.-allied unified Korea on its borders.

However, quotes from Chinese and South Korean diplomats and officials in recently leaked U.S. State Department cables suggest a more complicated picture: China is also growing exasperated with Pyongyang and has carefully studied the possibility of regime change and what a unified Korea might look like.

"Beijing has already set up a study group to look at the unification of Korea," said Antonio Chiang, a Taiwan-based commentator for that country's Apple Daily newspaper. "They are exploring all kinds of possibilities, because it [North Korean collapse] could come at any time. It's a very serious strategic dilemma, challenge and risk."

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In one leaked cable, a Chinese official compares North Korea to a "spoiled child." And a cable from February this year reports a South Korean official saying, "The PRC [People's Republic of China] would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a 'benign alliance' -- as long as Korea was not hostile towards China," according to reports.

Brian Bridges, an expert on East Asian politics at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, told AOL News that the leaked cables showed "the evident Chinese frustration with North Korea." That's something he and other observers had guessed was increasingly the case in the past few years. "The 'spoiled child' quote is a very nice one, and I shall be using it in my own writing, but it doesn't surprise me," Bridges said.

He said one of the most interesting details was the suggestion that some Chinese officials could live with a unified Korea under South Korean control. "If that is really the case, I find it a bit surprising," Bridges said. But he and others have cautioned that this was secondhand information (via a South Korean official) and not necessarily reliable.

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