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BRAHMA CHELLANEY
STRATEGIC IMPERATIVE

Author, most recently, of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.

China props up N. Korea, pursues game plan it cannot sustain

Through his hardline policy on North Korea, Lee Myung-bak hasonly played into China's hands.

orean demilitarised zone: One of the last relics of the Cold War, the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that cuts the Korean peninsula roughly in half is the world's most heavily-fortified frontier. Although this division has prevailed for almost six decades, it is unthinkable that it can continue indefinitely, despite the renewed inter-Korean tensions over the death of 46 South Korean sailors in the sinking of a warship. Just as the last two decades since the end of the Cold War have geopolitically transformed the world, the next two decades are likely to bring no less dramatic international change. One place where major geopolitical change seems inescapable is the Korean peninsula. Today, however, the spotlight is on the return of the cold war between North and South Korea. The deterioration in the North-South relations, however, predates the 26 March sinking of the South Korean warship, Cheonan. It began soon after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in 2007 and reversed the decade-long "sunshine policy" to cultivate reconciliation with the North that was pursued by his two immediate predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

Lee's strategy, however, has little to show in terms of results. If anything, the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang has demonstrated a proclivity to throw caution to the winds, best illustrated by the manner it conducted a second nuclear test, launched a long-range rocket and fired several missiles — all in the span of a few weeks in April-May 2009. The evidence on the Cheonan sinking, although not conclusive, points toward North Korea's culpability.

Still, events are unfolding in a way as to potentially transform the regional geopolitics in the coming years. Although none of the four powers with a history of intervention in the Korean peninsula — China, Japan, Russia and the United States — has any interest at present in disturbing the political status quo there, events can occur that are beyond the control of any internal or external force. The trigger for unleashing a cascading effect can come only from an increasingly isolated, impoverished and unstable North Korea.

North Korea's economic crisis is deepening, with food shortages and widespread malnutrition rife in a nation of more than 24 million citizens. Another indicator of the looming uncertainty is the poor health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Despite surviving an apparent stroke in August 2008 and returning to his feet, a shrivelled Kim today looks palpably sick. On a recent visit to China, he was seen dragging his feet. Kim Jong-il seems to be grooming his third son, the 26-year-old Kim Jong-un, to succeed him. In the coming months, Kim Jong-un is likely to assume a party position. But Kim Jong-un is too young and inexperienced to command popular respect and authority by succeeding an ailing father who may not last too long.

Given the worsening economic conditions and the uncertainty over how long Kim Jong-il will survive, the decks seem stacked against the prolongation of North Korea's totalitarian system for many more years.

Yet, China seems more intent than ever to maintain the North Korean regime, with or without Kim Jong-il. China continues to prop up the regime with economic aid, military hardware and political support. In fact, without the political protection it has continued to provide North Korea in the United Nations Security Council, the regime there would have by now collapsed under the weight of international sanctions. It is with such political protection that North Korea became the first non-nuclear member of the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty to breach its legal obligations and go overtly nuclear. It is also because of Chinese policy and protection that the now-dormant six-nation dialogue process on the North Korean issue made no progress.

Yet, China has cleverly played its diplomatic cards to emerge as the central player on the North Korean issue, with US policy more dependent than ever on Beijing for any forward movement. But Beijing, intent on shaping a regional order under its influence, has little interest in helping out US policy.

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By continuing to play the North Korean card, Beijing is able to wield political leverage against the United States.

The reality is that China is being guided by its ancient "zhonghwa" ideology, which calls for an East Asian order led by China. According to "zhonghwa," the entire region stretching from the Korean peninsula to the Japanese archipelago is supposed to be within China's sphere of influence, thus requiring it to exercise leadership through aid, leverage and diplomatic manoeuvred.

That may explain why Beijing, ignoring sensitivities in South Korea, warmly received Kim Jong-il on a recent state visit — a visit about which Seoul learned only after the North Korean strongman had arrived in China. Beijing also continues to shield Pyongyang over the Cheonan incident.

he fact is that China sees its interest best served by preservation of the status quo on the Korean peninsula. Korean reunification will not only change the geopolitical dynamics in Northeast Asia by creating a resurgent united Korea, but also bring US influence and military to China's doorstep. Today, by continuing to play the North Korean card, Beijing is able to wield political leverage against the United States. The logic on which Chinese policy operates is simple: Outside forces like the US cannot be allowed to exercise power in China's backyard. Yet, such is China's growing clout that none will dare to criticise the political protection it provides North Korea — not even Lee Myung-bak's Government, despite the dual diplomatic snub Beijing has recently delivered, first by hosting Kim Jong-il and then shielding Pyongyang over the Cheonan crisis.

Indeed, through his hardline policy on North Korea, Lee Myung-bak has only played into China's hands. Beijing can only thank him for pushing North Korea firmly onto its strategic lap.

Given the fact that it will be South Korea, like West Germany, that will have to bear the costs of reunification, the South should actively be seeking to open up the North, rather than working to further isolate it. The way to reduce costs of reunification would be for the North to be integrated with the South economically before moves are made toward political integration. But the policy of Lee Myung-bak, in reversing the inter-Korean détente, has blocked such a path.

Significantly, China has not tried to export its economic model to any of its client states. It is actually afraid that if North Korea begins to reform, its ailing system could collapse under the weight of its contradictions. After all, despite its phenomenal economic success, China itself has to walk a tightrope on opening up to the outside world: Because of its opaque, repressive system, the more it globalises, the more vulnerable it becomes internally. Thus, China has sought to open up to the extent necessary to underpin its economic growth, but without allowing the liberalising elements to come in. Yet it is doubtful it can prop up the North Korean system for very long.

In modern world history, a regime change in an autocratic system has served as a potential trigger for cataclysmic developments. When Kim Jong-il passes away, events over a three- to four-year period could create an unstoppable momentum toward radical transformation of North Korea — and the Korean peninsula as a whole.

 
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