25 July 2006

"Gum Disease" in the DPRK-PRC?

Relations between China and North Korea have been labled "as close as lips and teeth." But international media is painting a different picture. North Korea humiliated China by launching its missiles despite China's calls to refrain. Beijing agreed to a UNSC resolution to prevent North Korea from testing a nuclear device. Pyongyang and Beijing were engaged in a war of words over rail service before the missile test July 5.

I usually see such reports as attempts to portray North Korea without any allies (this perception serves Tokyo and Washington, but also at times Beijing and Pyongyang).

The latest article by Kim Myong Chol, North Korea's "unofficial spokesman," posted over at the Asia Times (The case for Pyongyang's missile tests), fits the pattern and tone of most of his writings. There is, however, something interesting in the subtext of China-North Korean troubles. Whether this reflects the thinking of the North Korean regime, Kim’s personal views, or is just me reading way too much into the article is still up for debate.

In looking at the article, the overall message is one of North Korea continuing its tried-and-true game of trying to threaten the United States into signing a peace accord, making all other options seem too painful and troubling. This is the repeated subtext of Kim MC's writings, and seems to accurately reflect Pyongyang’s negotiating style, albeit with a few expected flourishes, like warning of North Korean missiles targeting New York City or claiming North Korea can have the third largest nuclear force in the world.

It is this latter point, actually, that crosses over into what I see are the more interesting and less obvious aspects of Kim's report. Three phrases stood out quite sharply when I read Kim’s article.

"...there is no big-power ally to turn to for help in defending the sovereignty and security of North Korea..."

"Kim Jong Il, his associates and people are all proud descendents of a nation that routed the forces of Sui and Tang Dynasty China"

North Korea "will emerge as the third-most-powerful nuclear-weapon state... ahead of China"

All three of these seem to paint a picture of North Korean frustration if not anger with China. Now, I normally downplay the repeated media reports of a major rift between China and North Korea, and have said that China may have been benifited from the North Korean missile launch, rather than shocked (after all, China once again has the world turning to Beijing for a solution, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has even said Beijing is showing signs of being a "responsible stakeholder" through its diplomatic actions with Pyongyang).

But Kim Myong Chol offers some credence to the reported decay between Northeast Asia’s "lips and teeth."

Saying there is no big power to turn to suggests North Korea no longer sees China as a reliable backer. Economic and security ties remain, but Pyongyang cannot fully rely on China to keep North Korea's interests first and foremost. This is, of course, not new, and the old "lips and teeth" metaphor had a less-than-friendly second line, "when he lips are gone the teeth get cold." In other words, Chinese support for North Korea in 1950-53 and beyond was more about Chinese self-interest than neighborly support.

The second phrase - that of defeating the Sui and Tang - is even more startling. Why not mention defeating the Japanese, both during the Imjin War and during the guerilla campaigns during Japanese occupation? Are the North Koreans afraid to praise Yi Sun Shin because he is from the south? (Unlikely, given the really nice postage stamp of Yi the North has issued.) Certainly there is the innocuous explanation that Kim MC was just showing that North Korea has beaten "big powers" before, and this is a warning to the United States, but given the historical sensitivities in the region, there is no way China wouldn’t be perturbed at the references.

The final phrase seems even more provocative than the second one. North Korea will become the third largest nuclear power, ahead of China. This seems more of a threat to China than anything else - warning Beijing that North Korea can not only fend for itself, but has the fangs to counter any Chinese designs on North Korean territory or sovereignty. Now throw in Kim MC's references to Koguryo (China has the Koreas had a spat over the ancestry of the ancient Koguryo kingdom, and Beijing used the "discussion" to subtly hint that, should another war in Korea break out, Chinese troops would rush to the 38th parallel and set up a protectorate over North Korea, maintaining the buffer and simply welcoming Koguryo back into the Chinese fold).

Now, it may be that I am simply way over-analyzing this. It may reflect nothing more than Kim MC's creative writing. But it would seem to indicate trouble, at least rhetorically, between the two neighbors.

But as I write this, there is a troubling thought in the back of my mind. Maybe I just fell for the true intention of the article, maybe I have done exactly what was expected and so deeply read into each phrase that I am seeing and spreading the idea of a rift between Pyongyang and Beijing. Maybe this all just fits into the broader North Korean strategy. Certainly Pyongyang and Beijing have their differences, perhaps less visible than those between Seoul and its ally Washington, but unless North Korea is taking its threat campaign to China (which has a copy of the North Korean playbook and wouldn't be duped), this may well be part of the North's attempts to paint itself as extremely unpredictable and on the brink, and for Beijing, all that does is make China's good offices even more important to the United Sates, Japanese, South Koreans...

1 comment:

james said...

nice observation. and well written too.

but i think there were stats that came out today: http://www.ftd.de/karriere_management/business_english/99621.html

NK is reliant on China.

Without China's help/support, the flood gates would have already opened at the Yalu by now.