HONG KONG — Strange as it may seem, there was an unofficial American group in Pyongyang on July 5, when North Korea conducted a series of missile tests. Stranger still is that a key North Korean official spoke to them quite frankly about what he thought of China, ostensibly Pyongyang’s ally.
“With respect to our missile launch, I am awaiting responses from other parties,” Kim Gye Gwan, vice foreign minister and North Korea’s delegate to the six-party talks, told the Americans. “What I hear is Big Brother saying to Little Brother, ‘Don’t do that!’ But we are not a little boy. We have nuclear weapons.”
North Korea’s missile launches and the unanimous Security Council resolution condemning it 10 days later have seriously complicated the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula. Barring an unexpected turn of events, the chances of reviving the six-party talks are now remote and Beijing’s influence over Pyongyang has greatly diminished.
Pyongyang has not openly reacted to China’s decision to join in its condemnation. However, on July 21, the main North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun carried a signed article that contained a clear swipe at China. It said: “No other country but the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea] has firmly defended socialism in face of constant highhanded military blackmail and aggressive threats by the U.S. imperialists for decades.”
While North Korea’s main target continues to be the United States, it is clear from reading between the lines that China, too, has become the target of attacks.
For example, the Foreign Ministry statement rejecting the resolution declared: “Neither the United Nations nor anyone else can protect us.” This suggested that North Korea did not think that China was much of an ally.
China’s decision to endorse the resolution no doubt resulted from a deep sense of frustration and marks a turning point in Beijing’s relationship with its ally Pyongyang. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had publicly called on North Korea not to go ahead with the missile tests.
The aftermath of the missile launches sees North Korea even more isolated than before. Pyongyang’s relations with South Korea, Russia and China — the three countries that are the most sympathetic to its plight — have all worsened.
North Korea asserted that its nuclear weapons were necessary not only to defend itself but also to defend its southern brethren as well, a thesis rejected by Seoul. South Korea suspended shipments of rice and fertilizer and the North retaliated by canceling talks on family reunions.
Russia is North Korea’s main supplier of technology and arms, but it is unclear to what extent this will be affected by the Security Council resolution’s injunction against any trade in “missile and missile-related items, materials, goods and technology” with North Korea.
North Korea is threatening new missile launches. If it carries out this threat — or, worse, conducts a nuclear test — then North Korea will find itself in open confrontation with all of its neighbors, including China.
On July 10 a high-level delegation that China sent to Pyongyang on July 10 included Wu Dawei, the chairman of the six-party talks. Although the delegation remained in Pyongyang for five days, it did not even get to meet Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader — a major snub. By contrast, President Hu Jintao received Yang Hyong Sop, the head of a North Korean delegation sent to Beijing.
The two delegations did visit each other’s countries to mark the 45th anniversary of the signing of a friendship treaty on July 11, 1961.
On the surface, the two countries still seem the best of friends. The North Korean foreign minister sent greetings to his Chinese counterpart and voiced the belief that the friendship between their two countries “would grow stronger thanks to the joint efforts of the two countries.”
And Chen Haosu, the head of the main Chinese friendship association, said that friendship and unity between the two peoples “will be everlasting down through the centuries.”
Meanwhile, China’s relations with the United States, including in the military sphere, are noticeably warming. Last month, observers from China were invited to view a large war game conducted by the American military in the Pacific.
And, two days after China voted for the resolution, its top general, Guo Boxiong, arrived for a weeklong visit to the U.S. He not only met with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld but was given the unusual honor of meeting President George W. Bush in the White House.
North Korea’s China-watchers no doubt observed all this and drew their own conclusions. However, if Pyongyang retains any interest in a diplomatic resolution, China and the six-party talks remain the best bet.
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