By Yim Sung-joon
Acrophobia is certainly one of many traits that he inherited from his father Kim Il-sung. Nothing but acrophobia can explain why North Korean leader Kim Jong-il travelled about 6,000 kilometers on a rattling train in today’s busy world. Few national leaders would do so. The current security environment on the Korean Peninsula is highly unstable and grave as efforts to resume the six-party talks, prompted by the U.S.-China Summit meeting in January, have not yet born any fruit.
At this juncture, Kim's visit to China is, of course, a noteworthy event. It was his third visit to China since May 2010. Less than a year has passed since the previous visit in August 2010. What are the reasons for his frequent visits to China? How might these visits influence the politico-security situation of the Korean Peninsula?
North Korean and Chinese media report that the visit further strengthened the traditional relations of friendship and cooperation between Pyongyang and Beijing. The South Korean press, on the other hand, indicated that North Korea failed to reap any meaningful gains from the trip. Interestingly, Western media, including that of the U.S., seemed indifferent to this matter. However, in light of the diplomatic protocol that calls for careful coordination ahead of the visit of a head of state, Kim's visit might have been thoroughly coordinated in advance.
Unlike ordinary people, foreign-policy experts should be able to read the political implications of the visit. So what are they? The major undertone of this event is the rise of China, a key issue of 21st century international politics. Under the reform and openness policy of Deng Xiaoping, China has achieved rapid annual growth of 10 percent for 20 years.
China emerged last year as the world’s second-largest economic power. With such a status, China is no longer able to retain its economy-oriented policy based on the doctrine of Deng Xiaoping: “hide brightness and cherish obscurity” (tao guang yang hui). China is now required, by the international community as well as its own people, to play a greater role. International society calls for China to be more responsible for global issues, such as counter-terrorism and climate change, while the Chinese people, who gained much pride and hope from the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai Expo, want their government to have a strong voice in the international arena.
Many Western academics believe that China’s foreign policy has displayed significant changes in the past two or three years. Despite its denial, there are growing indications that China is moving toward a G2 competition with the U.S. China is also strengthening its soft power. It has launched a 24-hour international broadcast in English for a global audience. It also expanded the Confucius Language Academy to promote the global use of the Chinese language.
Second, China is now more assertive in international affairs related to its key national interests. At the 2010 ASAEAN Regional Forum, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi made an unprecedentedly stern warning against any intervention in its territorial disputes, while the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and military vigorously protested the ROK-U.S. joint naval exercise in the West Sea, in the aftermath of the sinking of the ROK naval vessel Cheonan.
Third, China seems to have expanded its scope of “core national interests”, beyond the Taiwan issue, since China and the U.S. reached a mutual agreement to respect each other’s core national interests. For example, China took issue with Japan over islands in the South China Sea (Senkaku to Japan; Diaoyu to China) and showed an overly sensitive reaction to a conflict in Xinjiang, Tibet.
Apparently, China’s recent protection of North Korea is in line with these changes in its foreign policy mentioned above. China’s reaction to the Cheonan incident and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, which represented a serious threat to South Korea’s security, was a disappointment to South Koreans and the international community.
South Korea and China have successfully cemented a bilateral relationship through vigorous trade and investment as well as an increased exchange of people since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992. Under the Lee Myung-bak administration, the two further upgraded relations to a strategic, cooperative partnership.
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the establishment of Korea-China diplomatic relations. It should be noted that the China of 20 years is substantially different from today’s China which is now a G2 global power. It is not easy to conclude whether this rise of China will be an asset or liability for South Korea.
In this respect, it is imperative for South Korea’s foreign policy experts to discern implicit changes in China properly so as to develop an effective strategy and policy framework that will promote and assure the security and prosperity of South Korea.
The writer is a distinguished professor at the Graduate School of International Area Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. A career diplomat, Yim is also senior advisor for Lee International IP & Law Group. He can be reached at email@example.com.