In the wake of North Korea's latest nuclear test, President Park Geun-hye and her Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping didn't speak to each other to discuss a matter that warrants close coordination. This comes as a great contrast to the fact that Park held prompt phone consultations with U.S. President Barack Obama and the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the very next day of the North's test.
Now, nearly a month has passed by since Pyongyang's nuclear test. Park and Xi still haven't spoken to each other. It raised many eyebrows and generated a considerable hubbub among pundits.
Xi and Park first met in 2005 when Xi visited Seoul as a provincial governor. Xi requested a meeting with Park, who was at that time the head of a powerful conservative political party, which is now the ruling Saenuri Party. The two met at a restaurant in Seoul. The meeting was supposed to last for 30 minutes, but when they finished talking, two-and-a-half hours had passed. They have now known each other for over a decade. In fact, the two leaders are reported to have formed personal bonding of trust, or "guanxi" in Chinese.
Since she took the presidential helm three years ago, Park has been pursuing a very robust policy that brought the nation closer together. Even before she was sworn in, she sent her emissaries first to China to meet with Xi, breaking her predecessors' tradition of sending envoys first to the U.S., Seoul's major military ally. As if to reciprocate Park's "good-will gesture," Xi Jinping, after he was minted as the Communist Party chief, also visited South Korea first. Xi's predecessors all visited first North Korea, China's ally from the Cold War era. Park and Xi have held six summits, while he has yet to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Pundits described the Seoul-Beijing relationship under Park and Xi as a "honeymoon" period.
News headlines questioned whether Park was "tilting" toward China too much, reportedly making Washington suspicious and antsy. Park even conspicuously attended China's military parade last year, hosted by Xi. Park was the only leader of a U.S. ally to attend. Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se on numerous occasions characterized the current South Korea-China relationship as "the best ever."
Moreover, according to Park, Xi even insinuated Beijing would support for Seoul-led unification of the two Koreas. During a talk with reporters on board the presidential aircraft on the way back home from China, Park revealed that she and Xi had agreed to "cooperate on the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula." Park went on to say, "Various discussions with China would begin soon." Many South Korean media outlets portrayed it as a critical sign that the Chinese leadership under Xi was finally siding with South Korea over the North Korean issue.
Against the backdrop, when North Korea carried out a nuclear test, it was all too natural for the public to expect that Park and Xi would immediately be on the phone to discuss a matter of mutual concern. That didn't happen. Apparently, it was Xi's side that didn't honor Park's desire to hold an emergency consultation on North Korea.
Park wasn't dejected. Perhaps thinking that her Chinese friend could use some nudge, she instead went public with her message to Xi. In a nationally televised news conference, Park pressed China to rein in North Korea. "China has repeatedly said publicly that it would not tolerate North Korea's nuclear weapons. I think China is fully aware that if such a strong will is not matched by necessary measures, we cannot prevent fifth and sixth nuclear tests by the North or guarantee real peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," she said, concluding "I trust China, as a permanent member of the Security Council, to play a necessary role." To Park's plea, China responded with a tall silence, as high as the Wall of the Forbidden City.
What went wrong? Where was the much-touted friendship? Many South Koreans expressed dismay about China. Some even argued that China's attitude amounts to a "betrayal" of friendship. However, the perspective from the Chinese side on the matter is starkly different.
Professor Cai Jian, of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said that South Korea should distinguish personal friendship from national interest. "Regardless of how good the personal friendship between the leaders is, at the end of the day the leader chooses to pursue the national interest," he told me. In fact, he argued, "Park's decision to attend the Chinese military parade last year was also based on her consideration of South Korea's own national interest."
Zhao Huji, a professor at the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China in Beijing (commonly known as the Central Party School), said the South Korean side was not well versed in how the Chinese bureaucratic system operates. "China needed sometime to formulate its response to North Korea's nuclear test. I think Park was a bit in a rush," Zhao said. He also argued that Park's remarks in which she publicly called on China to punish North Korea was inappropriate. "It gave the impression that she was demanding China act in this way or that way. That's not a pleasant experience. Her choice of words also weren't appropriate for an official occasion."
Chinese experts on the Korean Peninsula argue that China's basic position in dealing with the North Korean issue has been clarified many times and has been consistent. And Park's demand for China join the U.N. body to mete out the "severest ever punishment" on North Korea was too "extreme."
According to China's Foreign Ministry website, the Chinese formula on North Korea is:
1) Realizing denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula;
2) Safeguarding peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula; and
3) Solving the issue through dialogue.
Even if Xi himself were personally on the phone with Park hye, they argue, Xi wouldn't likely to divert much from the stated principle. It would have been therefore inconvenient for Xi to pick up the phone.
"Xi knew what Park was going to ask for. And it is something that China couldn't do," Cai said. Zhao of the Central Party School urged South Korea to accept the reality. "It's true that the relationship between China and South Korea is very good. It's also true that we have some fundamental different ideas on how to deal with North Korea."
China's reserved attitude may also have to do with its diplomatic loss of face for China's leadership, as North Korea, an ostensible ally, carried out the nuclear test without the usual courtesy of notifying Beijing in advance. It was widely seen as a slap in the face for China that is widely touted to have special influence over the North. Park was reaching out to China that was still licking the wounds and preoccupied with its loss of face, according to Chinese experts.
In addition, Chinese analysts point out that Beijing's top leadership knows relatively little of the complex details regarding the North Korean nuclear issue. Under such circumstance, if Xi were on the phone line with Park Geun-hye without enough preparations and ended up saying something impromptu that backfired, China would be creating a liability that it doesn't want to deal with. China doesn't want the risk.
South Korea is also advised to understand China's "two Koreas" policy. Li Nan, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, observed: "China's strategy is to strike a balance between the two Koreas. For China, South Korea is important. But North Korea is also important," said Li. This challenges the popular view in South Korea that, if China had to choose one from the two Koreas, it would automatically be South Korea. That may be the case economically, but not politically. China feels insecure about a unified Korea that is allied with the United States with troops on its borders.
Li also called on South Korea to appreciate the concerns China has with South Korea. "Even though the economic relationship between China and South Korea is very good, South Korea is still a military ally of the United States. This aspect is something China continues to pay attention to," he said.
China is also paying attention to the fact that Park will soon be nearing a lame-duck period. South Korea's constitution stipulates a president to a single-term five-year presidency. This month she will start her fourth year. Chinese analysts believe that Xi's reluctance to give the appearance of consulting the North Korean issue with Park has also to do with this. Zhao of the Central Party School noted: "As a democracy, South Korea elects new leader every five years. And each time, its North Korean policy tends to change in a dramatic way. I think Xi wants to keep a certain distance from South Korea's current policy on North Korea, because the next South Korean president may have a very different approach."
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D. is a research fellow at Sejong Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org