The following is the seventh in a series of articles examining Seoul-Beijing ties following the tumultuous relationship between the two countries last year. ― ED.
Director of research and academic affairs at the Korea Economic Institute
By Sunny Lee
BEIJING ― China was clearly annoyed by North Korea’s two provocative acts last year, but it couldn’t afford to join the international condemnation because Pyongyang is shrewd in manipulating Beijing and its fears of regional instability said Nicole Finnemann, director of research and academic affairs at the Korea Economic Institute.
Her view serves as a helpful pointer in Seoul and Washington’s brainstorming of how to better utilize the “China card” to contain North Korea’s belligerence.
“We tend to stop short of fully understanding China’s position. As a consequence, it is very difficult for us to work with the Chinese,” Finnemann said in an interview with The Korea Times.
Finnemann in recent years has made annual trips to Pyongyang, meeting with senior officials, such as Kim Kye-gwan, the North’s nuclear envoy. Her trips usually included a stopover in Beijing where she meets with Chinese security experts.
With her experience in dealing with both North Koreans and Chinese, Finnemann urges Seoul and Washington to be more creative in their approaches to Beijing, instead of making the usual exasperated statements of “China needs to do X.”
China’s image took a beating in South Korea in the aftermath of the sinking of the frigate Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last year by North Korea, as Beijing showed unwillingness to condemn the North.
In the minds of many South Koreans, China simply sticks by its Cold War ally, not doing enough to contain North Korea’s belligerent acts, thus failing to play its purported role as a “responsible power.”
In a recent poll conducted by the Hankook Ilbo, a sister paper of The Korea Times, in collaboration with the polling agency Millward Brown, nearly half of South Koreans said they have a negative image of China.
But the nuanced remark by Finnemann also points out that South Koreans to go beyond the simple “good-guy-bad-guy” characterization in international politics and think over the complexity of Pyongyang and Beijing ties.
For instance, China is not “pampering” North Korea like some observers opinions. “China gives North Korea a fraction of what it demands, in food, fuel, and military support,” said Finnemann.
In another example, when the two countries had busy bilateral exchanges last fall, celebrating the anniversaries of the Korean War and the founding of the Workers’ Party, Pyongyang sent a high-level delegation to Beijing, but the latter “very deliberately sent the lowest person they could send in return,” said Finnemann.
News reports show that China then sent Zhou Yongkang to North Korea, ranked ninth in China's politburo. North Korea sent Choe Thae-bok to China, a confidant of Kim Jong-il and the Supreme People’s Assembly Chairman.
“While I do not agree with everything China says, it was very interesting to hear the Chinese perspective. Obviously, China is helping North Korea so much. But from the Chinese perspective that I heard, there is a belief that China is not propping up the North Korean regime,” said Finnemann.
There has recently been an active debate in Seoul on the possibility of Pyongyang’s collapse, due to its destroyed economy. Beijing’s fear, according to Finnemann, is not so much the collapse of North Korea per se, as how it may destabilize its northeastern region bordering the North if a deluge of refugees, some of them perhaps carrying weapons, crosses into the Chinese territory.
China wants a smooth transition of power that can prolong the stability of the North’s leadership because it is well aware that there’s nothing, if the North collapses, it can do to stop it from happening. “It’s in China’s desperate interest to prefer a smooth transition. Whatever that transition is, China’s interest is the stability of the transition, not China’s support for Kim Jong-il,” said Finnemann.
“We tend to say China holds the key to the North Korean problem. In fact, North Korea uses China very effectively, and uses China’s fears very effectively.”
Finnemann also said “nobody is more annoyed by Kim Jong-il’s regime than China. I genuinely believe that North Korea is a big thorn in China’s side. North Korea manipulates China very, very well.”
She challenges Seoul and Washington to take more initiative in doing something about Pyongyang, rather than “outsourcing” the mission to Beijing. She also urges the South and the U.S. to be more creative in soliciting China’s help to deal with North Korea. And that includes allaying Beijing’s concerns.
“There’s significant room for cooperation with China. For example, if China cooperates with the U.S. on better containment of North Korea’s illicit arms shipping, which goes through China’s waters and air space, we can also help with economic projects in cooperation with China into North Korea.”
Finnemann’s view would be seen by some as benefiting the regime. “But it doesn’t mean ‘giving in to the bad guys,’ or giving the regime anything that it doesn’t deserve, “ she said. “For the stability of the region, we need other more subversive engagement tactics that would benefit different stakeholders.”
“More economic activities in North Korea will help alleviate China’s fears of North Korea’s collapse,” she said.