Prof. Toshimitsu Shigemura
By Sunny Lee
BEIJING ― China cut off oil supplies to North Korea following the North’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island to prevent Pyongyang from carrying out its threats to retaliate against the South, a Japanese expert on North Korea said.
``China halted heavy fuel oil provisions to North Korea after the artillery shelling of the Yeonpyeong,” Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor of international relations at Waseda University in Tokyo, told The Korea Times, citing sources who recently visited North Korea.
The surprising revelation, if confirmed, explains why North Korea didn’t implement its pledge of a severe reaction to South Korea's insistence on going through with live-fire artillery drills off the same island last month.
The fatal shelling of Yeonpyeong left four people dead, including two civilians. South Korea and the U.S. reacted by conducting the largest ever joint military exercises with the participation of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington.
South Korea vowed stern retaliation against any further attack from the North. Pyongyang shot back with its own warning of retaliation if case the South went ahead with further live-fire drills that Seoul had planned. Pyongyang made the warning on Dec. 17, and as if to make sure the South wouldn’t take its warning lightly, it repeated the threat the following day.
North Korea didn’t put its words into action when South Korea actually carried out the live-fire drills. Instead, Pyongyang surprisingly said it was not worth reacting to Seoul’s military provocations.
The “nonevent” was a relief for many concerned about a possible major armed clash between the rival Koreas, but it also raised eyebrows over Pyongyang’s sudden change of heart.
“The timing of China’s cutting off of oil supplies to North Korea was when the joint military drills between South Korea and the U.S. started with tension spiking in the region,” said Shigemura, adding the no-oil period lasted for about three weeks while the situation remained volatile.
“Beijing said it was due to a technical problem. But the message was clear to Pyongyang,” said Shigemura.
China was really worried that tension on the Korean Peninsula might get out of control, if left intact, according to Chinese experts on North Korea. To dissuade the North from resorting to armed adventurism, officials reportedly told Pyongyang not to retaliate against the South’s live-fire drills, saying it was a trap by the U.S. and South Korea to seize the opportunity to overrun North Korea.
While Shigemura’s remarks await confirmation, a Chinese analyst is skeptical, saying China was unlikely to take such a drastic measure when the Sino-North Korean relations are better these days.
But echoing other U.S. officials, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who recently visited Beijing, praised China for its constructive role in dissuading North Korea from implementing its threats against the South.
“We acknowledge and appreciate China's constructive actions late last fall in terms of trying to tamp down tensions on the peninsula,” Gates said in Beijing. He didn’t specify what the Chinese action was.
For years, the United States has urged China to do more to rein in North Korea, using its economic influence over the impoverished country.
Beijing supplies 90 percent of Pyongyang’s oil needs, according to an estimate by the World Bank.
China had reportedly cut off its provision of fuel oil to North Korea in 2003, to dampen Pyongyang’s nuclear ambition. However, the records also show inconsistency or ambivalence on the part of China in using its economic influence over the North to moderate the latter’s behavior. In 2005, for example, China rejected the same U.S. suggestion to cut off oil to pressure North Korea. Yet in 2006, during North Korea’s missile and nuclear testing China reportedly shut off the oil pipeline.
During the U.S.-South Korean joint military drills, Shigemura said, China also dispatched fighter jets to Pyongyang, which stayed there for about a week “to serve as a counterweight to the joint drills” and also “to prevent Pyongyang taking matters into its own hands.”
‘중국, 북한의 보복 막기 위해 중유공급 중단’
베이징 -- 중국은 북한이 남한에 대해 보복위협을 하는 것을 방지하기 위해 연평도 포격에 이어 북한으로의 석유 공급을 차단했다고 일본의 한 전문가가 말했다.
“연평도 포격 후 중국은 북한에 대한 중유 공급을 중단했다”고 와세다 대학교의 토시미츄 시게무라 국제관계 교수가 최근 북한을 방문한 소식통을 인용하여 코리아타임스에 밝혔다.
이 깜짝 발언은 왜 북한이 남한의 지난달 연평도 해상에서의 실사격 훈련을 강행시 무자비하게 보복 대응하겠다고 한 다짐을 이행하지 않은 이유를 설명한다. 연평도 포격으로 2명의 민간인을 포함 4명이 사망했다. 이에 한미 양국은 미 항공모함 조지 워싱턴호가 참가한 가운데 사상 최대 규모의 합동군사훈련을 실시했다.
남한은 북한의 어떠한 추가 공격에 대해 단호한 보복을 다짐했었다. 이에 북한은 남한이 실사격 훈련을 계획대로 강행할 경우 보복한다고 경고했었다.
북한은 이런 경고를 지난 12월 7일 내보냈는데 남측이 이를 가볍게 여기지 않도록 확실히 하기 위해 다음날 재차 경고를 내보냈었다.
북측은 남한이 실제로 실사격훈련을 강행하자 이 경고를 실행에 옮기지 않았으며 놀랍게도 남측의 군사도발에 대해 대응할 가치가 없다고 말했다.