China’s North Korean Contradictions

BEIJING – The release by WikiLeaks of American diplomatic cables written between 2004 and 2010 contains considerable material on China’s policy toward North Korea. The leaks supposedly unveil a Chinese readiness to accept the reunification of Korea in favor of South Korea. This proposition almost beggars belief because it starkly contradicts China’s actions in failing to openly condemn North Korea for its sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March, or for the recent artillery attack on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island.

Similarly, rather than demand that North Korea stop its brinkmanship, China’s leaders have called for emergency consultations involving the United States, Japan, Russia, China, the United Nations, and South Korea. None of these actions suggest a willingness to make the North Korean regime pay the price it deserves for its provocations.

So why doesn’t China move more decisively to rein in North Korea? The conventional wisdom is that China doesn’t want to lose North Korea as a buffer between it and the US military in South Korea. Thus China does what it must, shoring up the Kim family dynasty to prevent Korea from reunifying on South Korean terms. Indeed, the controversy in Chinese eyes is not really about Korean reunification – few in Beijing speculate that the endgame will be otherwise – but to what extent reunification can be achieved without damaging China’s security concerns.

Every time North Korea acts provocatively – testing nuclear bombs, launching missiles, touting its secretive uranium enrichment facilities, and killing South Korean soldiers and civilians – China comes under diplomatic fire. Its chronic indecisiveness about the North and unwillingness to use its leverage, thus shielding its socialist ally, seems to reveal to the wider world a China obsessed with its own narrow interests.