A Cuban in Peking looks at China/North Korea Relations

Tired of North Korea’s vehement provocations, China gives its long-standing ally a “slap on the hand.”

By Isidro Estrada

Korean snacks.
Korean snacks.

HAVANA TIMES — Those who had asked themselves how long the proverbial patience of the Chinese would last with respect to North Korea have been given an answer.

Peking is no longer mincing its words to address its vehement neighbor, which has had no other option than to deploy a soft-spoken envoy to the Chinese capital, tasked with acquiescing to the “suggestion” his hosts awaited him with.

The message, in simple words, was this: either you sit down at the negotiations table and openly resume talks, putting aside all boastful poses, or China’s gloves are off, big time.

Everything seems to indicate that Kim Jong Un and his retinue of generals have finally gotten the message, for they haven’t wasted a second to offer their apologies to the Chinese government -symbolically, but sincerely nonetheless – for the dangers they have exposed the Korean peninsula to in recent months, a climate of insecurity which has had negative repercussions for China’s strategic plans in the region.

Police Office at Koreatown.
Police Office at Koreatown.

What, in other circumstances, would have been a mere formality, that is, a run-of-the-mill meeting between government representatives, took on the significance of an admission of guilt on behalf of the North Korean leadership with Vice-Marshal Choe Rypong-Hae’s visit to China this week.

This fact becomes particularly evident if we recall that the Vice-Marshal’s visit to Peking follows China’s refusal to send a representative to North Korea, to attend a meeting that country’s leadership requested in April.

This move clearly showed North Korea the extent to which its chief – or, in fact, only – ally in the world resented its behavior. And this was not to be taken lightly: on turning down this invitation, Peking was refusing to participate in the habitual exchange of government representatives that the two nations had held every two years since they established diplomatic relations in 1949.

Wangjing Koreatown
Wangjing Koreatown

Suffice it to recall that these exchanges had been interrupted only once before, in 1992, when China established official links with South Korea and the North expressed its anger over this by temporarily suspending the sending of envoys and refusing to receive those of the neighboring nation.

This week, seeing that the Chinese government had set its foot down, the North Korean leadership saw itself pinned against the corner. What neither the Pentagon, South Korea nor the UN Security Council have yet been able to achieve, Peking has secured with a mild but decisive slap on the hands of North Korea, a gesture which included the suspension of financial transactions between the Bank of China and North Korea’s International Trade Bank in early May.

With such a rough preamble, Marshall Choe arrived in Peking ready to hear and abide by the instructions his hosts had in store for him.

Korean restaurant.
Korean restaurant.

In response to the sermon, he underscored how crucial China’s continued economic support is for North Korea. Without the steady supply of fuel, cereals and other food products – which represent nearly 70 % of the country’s foreign trade – North Korea would become even more deeply mired in its current economic stagnation.

China knows this and faces something of a dilemma. If it maintains a permissive attitude towards Kim and his gang, the latter may continue stepping up their string of provocations and prompt the United States to fill the seas hugging southern China’s coasts with war ships and aircraft carriers, among other possible reactions.

And that’s exactly what Peking fears right now, when it is trying to negotiate, under conditions of relative equality, the much-proclaimed “return of the United States” to Asia and the Pacific, to say nothing of its apprehensions regarding a potential, all-out armed conflict, which would spread across the entire Asian region.

Korean Mobizone.
Korean Mobizone.

On the other hand, if China turns the screws too tightly on North Korea, denying it the economic aid it needs, a humanitarian crisis could well ensue there, spelling, for starters, an uncontrollable exodus of North Koreans through the highly porous border between the two countries. This eventuality has been avoided, for the time being. But the mere prospect of such a scenario has the Chinese side of the border more than on edge.

A Somalia of the Far East?

Till now, those who have followed this situation have not paid sufficient attention to events that, in my humble opinion, offer signs of increasingly desperate circumstances within the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, signs which are not to be taken lightly.

In May of 2012 (and the same month of this year), North Korean military forces kidnapped a group of Chinese fishers while they were sailing across the country’s territorial waters, or within China’s maritime jurisdiction, depending on whether you believe the captors or hostages. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that what the kidnappers desperately wanted in exchange for the vessels and their crews was, above all, a ransom payment.

Korean Gingseng
Korean Gingseng

Last year, the North Koreans released the 29 Chinese fishermen, after stealing from them practically everything they had. This year, they asked for nearly one hundred thousand dollars in exchange for their hostages.

Ultimately, they let the hostages go without collecting the ransom. But, in keeping with the best of pirate tradition, they stripped them of everything they could get their hands on, including their food. This was yet another incident which tried the patience of the Chinese.

To make matters worse, North Korea’s military establishment claims not to know which of its detachments is responsible for such unbecoming practices.

These two incidents bring two undeniable realities up for discussion: the worsening material shortages in North Korea are pushing some of its military forces to engage in activities which border on plain criminal behavior. And – what’s even more serious – these criminals are acting with apparent autonomy, or, worse, with impunity.

If these trends continue, the severe shortages and the complacency of authorities could yield an explosive combination, turning the maritime zone next to North Korea into something resembling the dangerous Gulf of Aden, where Somali pirates once stood out for their singular ferocity – something we should be concerned about.

Refugees from the North, Entrepeneurs from the South

The tit-for-tat between the DPRK and China in recent months has had its price: China has begun to distance itself from its “inseparable” ally, at more than one level.

Korean dolls.
Korean dolls.

Official government communiqués say nothing of the matter – State interests obviously advise against this – but one need only look to the opinions expressed in China’s press or, to get an even clearer picture of the situation, gauge the feelings of its population, to understand that there is no room for Kim Jong Un’s reckless behavior in a China that is undergoing reforms and opening its doors to the world, or that North Korean pressures are obtaining exactly the opposite of what they aim for.

In this connection, the words of Zhang Liangui, a North Korea expert from the Central Committee Academy of China’s Communist Party, are more than revealing. Quoting the Global Times, Liangui remarked that: “Pyongyang is trying to steer Chinese diplomacy.

Its provocations, however, have had an adverse result, for they have brought China and the United States closer and have resulted in more frequent high-level exchanges between the two countries. Consequently, [Pyongyang] is looking for other ways of sabotaging Sino-American relations.”

To gain a deeper understanding of the changes that the popular perception of the two Koreas has experienced among the Chinese, one need only visit Peking’s two Korean neighborhoods, in the Wudaoku and Wangjing districts, in the eastern and western ends of the city, respectively.

Korean Cybercafe
Korean Cybercafe

The overwhelming majority of the nearly 300 thousand Koreans currently residing in China are from South Korea. China has opened its doors to them, offering them a new life, and, in a show of gratitude, they have generated riches which they distribute among their country of origin and their adoptive soil.

This contrasts starkly with what many Chinese consider the “ungrateful attitude” of North Korea, which, in return for so much aid, has put China in more than one sticky situation in recent times.

In a recent visit to Wangjing, I met Lee Jun-Ha and Park Ji-yung, a young couple from South Korea. The couple is representative of the growing and fruitful exchange between Peking and Seoul.

Lee and Park arrived in China in 1997. They met while studying at university in Peking. After graduating, they got married and currently live in Wangjing. There, they jointly run Mobizone, a unique business which combines coffee and snacks with the sale of electronic devices such as IPhones, tablets and micro-computers.

While the more discrete Park prepares a sweet-smelling mocha, the versatile Lee sees to customers desirous of keeping abreast of the most recent developments in electronics. The young couple asks me not to take pictures of them, though they let me photograph their store.

“I prefer to stay out of politics,” Lee replies when I ask him about the possible repercussions that the launching of North Korean missiles could have in his country. “All we want is to live in peace and to continue to prosper. We’re achieving that here,” he adds.

If we recall that, in 1999, Wangjing was known as Peking’s “sleeping city”, a district totally lacking in modern infrastructure, and that today, it is a monument to personal prosperity thanks to the efforts of thousands upon thousands of South Korean immigrants, one will be in a better position to grasp why, in the eyes of millions of Chinese, North and South Korea stand at opposite ends of all possible spectra.

The lists of “exports” of the two countries are a measure of what one can expect from each.


2 thoughts on “A Cuban in Peking looks at China/North Korea Relations

  • May 31, 2013 at 3:10 pm
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    …birds of a feather, flock together.

  • May 31, 2013 at 7:55 am
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    The North Korean regime is a criminal organization in control of a country. Their leading exports are missiles, meth-amphetamines, heroin and counterfeit money.

    When Kim Jong Il died, the government of Cuba ordered a period of official mourning for the North Korean dictator.

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