By Kang Hyun-kyung
China sided with the rest of the world to impose sanctions on North Korea last year after the latter launched missiles and conducted an underground nuclear test, condemning Pyongyang for escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
However, it has remained silent over the North torpedoing the South Korean Navy ship Cheonan, claiming the lives of 46 sailors in March.
China's double standard on the reclusive state's belligerent behavior has prompted experts to speculate over its motives.
Professor Kenneth Quinones, dean of research evaluation of Japan's Akita International University, told The Korea Times that there has been a change in China's policy toward North Korea since it supported the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) sanctions last year.
"China's approval of U.N. sanctions last year caused an intense debate within the Chinese government over whether to use pressure or to try to induce North Korea's cooperation," the former U.S. diplomat said.
Quinones said the foreign ministry preferred using international pressure but the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Liberation Army preferred using inducement.
"The party and the army won the debate so after the U.N. sanctions that were approved in June, China moderated its policy toward Pyongyang," he said.
Some experts observed China learned a lesson that sanctions beget another bellicose act and that the side effect might cause the patron to rethink punitive actions.
Drew Thompson, director of China Studies at the Nixon Center in Washington, D.C., noted that the level of tension on the Korean Peninsula is higher now than last year.
"The domestic situation in North Korea is even less stable than last year. The transition of power, Kim Jong-il's health and the economic, social and possible political impact of the disastrous currency reevaluation are likely factors for this rise in tension which is spilling over North Korea's border," he told The Korea Times.
His comments came hours before Chun Yung-woo, second vice foreign minister, returned to Seoul Wednesday empty handed after wrapping up a two-day visit to China.
During the trip, the South Korean envoy met with several high-ranking Chinese officials to try and persuade them to join the Seoul-led effort to lock the North into appropriate codes of conduct.
South Korea initiated the diplomatic effort in retaliation for the North Korean torpedo attack.
Diplomacy, however, appeared to reveal its limitations as the South Korean envoy allegedly failed to influence China to look beyond its so-called strategic interests on the Korean Peninsula.
Beijing reportedly remained unchanged in its position to shield Pyongyang from coordinated punitive measures over the Cheonan case.
According to media reports, China is unwilling to join any UNSC statements or resolution if they specify North Korea as a player responsible for the act.
'Sanctions beget another provocation'
Thompson pointed to the negative fallout of China joining the effort to punish North Korea at the UNSC as a possible clue that can help Beijing's decode double standard.
"Some Chinese might determine that China's support for the U.N. resolution last year might have contributed to North Korea's decision to launch a torpedo attack on a South Korean vessel, and therefore conclude that supporting another effort at the UNSC will not deter provocations," he said. "(Sanctions) might even encourage more provocations."
In a report titled, "Shades of Red: China's Debate over North Korea," the International Crisis Group said that China was angered by the North Korean bellicose acts last year and tried to reprimand Pyongyang, but "in a controlled way that would protect Chinese interests."
Beijing prioritizes stability over denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and it is deeply worried over a possible U.S. military presence north of the Military Demarcation Line in case social unrest in the North leads to a precipitous reunification of the two Koreas.
"China negotiated for over two weeks to ensure that UNSC Resolution 1874 was strong enough to satisfy the United States and its allies yet sufficiently restrained in its effects to mitigate any damage to the North Korean regime," the group said.
Professor Quinones observed China will try to avoid doing anything that would alter its current balanced policies toward both Koreas.
"Punishing North Korea over the Cheonan incident would undermine this balance," he said.
'Cheonan is a domestic issue'
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said in an interview last week that China perceived the Cheonan case as a domestic issue, not an international one, whereas South Korea is pushing for global action against the North.
His remarks hinted Beijing believes Seoul should sit down with Pyongyang to resolve the torpedo attack and that the incident is not something that necessarily needs to be addressed at an international level.
The minister confessed that the perception gap between the two made it difficult for the South to convince China to join the effort to force the North to take the consequences of its deeds at the UNSC.
Based on his observation, China's double standard on North Korea stemmed from the belief that the communist state's nuclear threats such as that of last year, posed a common security threat to the international community including China and Russia, but that its torpedo attack on the warship alarmed only South Korea.
Quinones noted that he thinks "it is unrealistic for the government in Seoul to expect Beijing to support a sanctions resolution against North Korea at the UNSC."
"Nevertheless, President Lee Myung-bak must convince the South Korean people that he is pressing for resolute punishment of North Korea. By pressing for it, he can blame China for blocking such a resolution," he advised.