North Korea: the region’s ‘uniter’

by Frank Ching

Ever since international investigators concluded that the South Korean naval ship Cheonan, which sank in March with the loss of 46 lives, was struck by a North Korean torpedo, China has been under growing pressure to condemn its close friend and ally in the United Nations Security Council.

The report was issued May 20, just days before top American officials arrived in Beijing for high-level strategic and economic talks. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on China to take part in joint action to deal with the latest North Korean challenge.

This past weekend, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was in South Korea to take part in a summit meeting involving China, Japan and South Korea. There, he came under pressure to endorse the findings of the international investigators, but said that China had not yet made up its mind on the issue and would make a judgment on the evidence in an “objective and fair manner.” He promised that Beijing would not protect the guilty party.

The summit meeting, the third of its kind, is part of a process to accelerate the regional integration of Northeast Asia. The new Japanese government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in particular has emphasized the need for the creation of an East Asian Community.

The Cheonan incident will cause South Korea and Japan to reassess China’s reliability as a political and economic partner in view of Beijing’s closeness to Pyongyang. It is putting the international spotlight on Beijing, emphasizing the closeness of its relationship with Pyongyang. The North Korean leader Kim Jong Il paid a five-day visit to China in May and was feted by President Hu Jintao.

The Cheonan incident is also underlining the importance of the U.S. military alliance to both South Korea and Japan, both of which have talked in recent years about the need for more equality in the alliance.

Increasingly, voices have been raised calling for greater “balance” in relations. Thus, even though the United States is an ally, some Japanese politicians argue that Tokyo-Washington-Beijing relations “should be equally balanced like an equilateral triangle.”

Even in Taiwan, which relies on the U.S. to guarantee its security, there are voices calling for the balancing of relations with China and the U.S.

It is probably no accident that the Obama administration’s just-released document, the National Security Strategy of the United States, says of the alliances with Japan and South Korea: “We are modernizing our security relationships with both countries to face evolving 21st century global security challenges and to reflect the principle of equal partnership with the United States.”

Hatoyama’s party, the Democratic Party of Japan, was elected on a platform that promised to shift the government’s focus from America to Asia and re-examine Japan’s ties with the U.S.

Since the Hatoyama administration came to power last year, it has held four summit meetings with China and five meetings of their respective foreign ministers. “Japan has conducted such extensive bilateral talks with China alone,” Kazuo Kodama, a foreign ministry spokesman, has pointed out. “No other countries have enjoyed such extensive meetings on the political level.”

It is not clear how China is going to reach a determination regarding whether North Korea was responsible for the torpedo attack on the Cheonan.

Russia has said that it would not support Security Council action unless it had “100 percent proof of North Korea’s role.” Russian experts have accepted an invitation to go to South Korea and are reportedly sifting through the evidence.

China, too, has been invited to send experts to assess the evidence gathered by South Korea, which includes a torpedo propeller allegedly with North Korean markings. So far, it is not clear if China has accepted the invitation.

Clearly, China, too is trying to “balance” its relations with North and South Korea. On the face of it, the decision for Beijing should be simple. After all, China’s trade with South Korea is expected to be close to $200 billion this year, about 70 times greater than its trade with North Korea.

And yet, China evidently continues to value its ties with North Korea, which is also under Communist Party rule. Part of this is historical. After all, the two countries were allies against the U.S. and South Korea during the Korean War. But China should realize that if it tries to remain neutral in the sinking of the Cheonan, South Korea and Japan will both be asking questions about its reliability as a partner.

Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator.