What Will China’s Next Move on North Korea Be?

LIU JIN / AFP / Getty Images; STR / AFP / Getty Images

Hannah Beech
Time

Smoke was still billowing from Yeonpyeong, the South Korean island that endured barrages of North Korean artillery fire on Nov. 23, when China’s state-run network CCTV led its news program with the conflagration on the Korean peninsula. A natural move, it would seem, given that it was one of the worst border conflicts between the two Koreas in half a century, in which at least two South Korean soldiers died. But even though video footage appeared to clearly show North Korea initiating the attack on Yeonpyeong island, the CCTV newscast took a different stance. Blame was not apportioned to the North. Instead, the news program quoted a North Korean official claiming that it was actually South Korea that had struck first. While a chorus of nations quickly condemned North Korea for its belligerence, China, as usual, had chosen to dissemble.

The rest of the world may consider North Korea the ultimate rogue state, but China has a long and close connection with its hermit neighbor. After all, during the Korean War, Beijing sent wave after wave of People’s Liberation Army soldiers to fight on the North’s behalf. Chairman Mao Zedong famously called the relationship between the communist bedfellows as close “as lips and teeth.” Even as North Korea’s intransigence and unpredictability has grown, China has hesitated to criticize its isolated ally too harshly. The reasoning has been simple: Not only do the countries share a historical ideological bond, but Beijing wants to avoid a collapse of the North Korean regime lest a deluge of refugees flood over into northeastern China. It’s also an important cushion between China and a major U.S. military ally, South Korea. In fact, relations between Pyongyang and its one and only ally are so close that North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il — hardly a world traveler — has twice visited China this year.
(See pictures of the Koreas’ exchange of fire.)

But Beijing’s quiescent North Korea policy raises concerns that China is not willing to engage in regional affairs on a level commensurate with its rising-power status. In the wake of the Yeonpyeong attack, Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, who once served in China as a diplomat, said what many other nations have surely been thinking: “I believe it’s important now for China to bring all of its influence to bear on North Korea.” The island artillery fire comes just days after an American academic visited a North Korean facility, where he said he saw over a thousand centrifuges used for enriching uranium — a key step in eventually developing nuclear weapons. “This is a huge test for Chinese diplomacy,” says John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, who studies Chinese-North Korean relations. “China needs to move quickly. It needs to find ways to acknowledge the severity of the situation and then do whatever it can to turn the focus back to dialogue and negotiation.”

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