Page 1 of 2 China makes its North Korea move
By Peter Lee
The Barack Obama administration's policy of "strategic reassurance" vis-a-vis
China appears to be yielding its first fruits - the profoundly unreassuring
image of President Hu Jintao clasping Kim Jong-il's hand in Changchun and, very
probably, heralding the survival of the sclerotic North Korean regime into its
This denouement should not have been unexpected as a riposte to the joint
United States-South Korean strategy of responding to the Cheonan sinking
in March with heightened rhetoric, referral of the issue to the United Nations,
and a show of military force in Northeast Asian waters - all designed to
challenge China's role as acknowledged stakeholder in matters of the peninsula.
China and North Korea set aside their many differences and
presented a united front to the world on the future of the peninsula,
effectively repudiating the US and South Korean formula of reunification in
favor of the continued division of Korea.
Whether the US policy is remembered as a successful piece of brinksmanship,
counter-productive provocation, or another sacrifice of the well-being and
freedom of the North Korean people for the sake of vague and unattainable goals
may well depend on the fate of another diplomatic initiative that is probably
closer to Obama's heart: the high-stakes effort to roll back Iran's nuclear
Certainly, the tightened embrace between China and North Korea cannot be
pleasing to Barack Obama or South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in the near
A statement on China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs website gave no satisfaction
on the issue of the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, a
piece of alleged egregious North Korean misbehavior that the US and South Korea
still insist must be addressed before contacts can normalize.
Instead, the statement recorded a call for the resumption of the six-party
talks on North Korea's nuclear program, a process that gives China a more
central role than the US or South Korea or, for that matter, the North in
better days, are eager to grant.
To rub salt in the wound, the Chinese side heaped praise on North Korea for its
constructive approach to security on the peninsula (after blandly acknowledging
the Cheonan uproar with the observation that "trends in a new direction
emerged after the letter of the UN Security Council"):
The Chinese side
respects and supports the positive efforts of the North Korean side in
decreasing tensions on the peninsula and improving external conditions. It
proposes that various parties uphold and preserve the banner of the stability
and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and moderate the current tense
situation by reopening the six-party talks as quickly as possible. 
Kim Jong-il's trip last week to Changchun n Jilin province was described in the
Western media in dismissive terms, focusing on assumptions that he found it
necessary to beg Chinese assistance in order to smooth the way for the expected
succession of his third son, Kim Jong-un, to the position of
However, what the US and South Korea undoubtedly focused on was the decision by
the Chinese leadership to openly acknowledge the visit, dispatch Hu to meet
with Kim, and give the trip the color of an official visit.
Though the statement in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announcement that Kim
visited China "at the invitation of President Hu Jintao" might be dismissed as
standard boilerplate, the fact remains that China decided to receive Kim's
delegation and publicize the event.
Now that China has explicitly placed its Korean Peninsula eggs in Kim Jong-il's
basket, the idea that Beijing would acquiesce to the collapse of the regime in
Pyongyang and reunification under the aegis of South Korea is a seriously
For the time being, it appears that China has called South Korea's bluff. Lee
Myung-bak quickly backed down, at least quasi-officially. Lee's remarks to his
cabinet on Kim's visit were transmitted to the South Korean media by a
"I positively evaluate that Chairman Kim
frequents China," Lee said during a Cabinet meeting, according to presidential
spokeswoman Kim Hee-jung ... Lee was quoted as saying that Kim's repeated trip
to China would have a positive influence on North Korea's economy as it would
provide him with more opportunities to see China's economic development
firsthand. "I see China's role positively as well," the president added. 
Yonhap made the observation:
The rare revelation of Lee's remarks on
Kim's China trip apparently aims to counter an impression that Seoul is blindly
opposed to a gesture by Pyongyang and Beijing to cement their ties.
Beijing probably derived additional satisfaction from the Chosun Ilbo report
entitled "Seoul Won't Insist on Cheonan Apology Before 6-Party Talks".
As a face-saving measure, discussions/accusations on the Cheonan sinking
will apparently continue in parallel with the six-party talks:
government officials expressed worries that Seoul could not stall the six-party
talks indefinitely if Pyongyang and Beijing agree to give priority to them.
Foreign Ministry officials last Friday briefed Wu Dawei, the visiting Chinese
chief nuclear negotiator, on Seoul's new position.
"Realistically, there is zero possibility of the North admitting its
involvement in the Cheonan sinking and apologizing for it," a government
official said. "But at the same time we can't just let it pass, which is what
the North wants."
As befits its status as the world's only
superpower, the United States did not respond to the changed situation with the
same alacrity as South Korea.
Instead, the Obama administration marked the occasion by announcing additional
sanctions against North Korea.
Students of presidential power may find it interesting that the sanctions -
indeed much of the edifice of unilateral sanctions against Iran and North Korea
- are authorized under a 1994 Executive Order, No 12938, signed by president
Bill Clinton. To continue to exercise this authority, every year the American
president must certify that the United States is in a state of national
emergency due to the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Obama issued the
certification most recently on November 9, 2009, and will presumably extend the
state of national emergency again later this year.
The executive order declaring a weapons of mass destruction state a national
emergency is elastic enough to allow the United States to explicitly implace
sanctions to interdict luxury goods such as "jewelry, luxury cars and yachts",
in the words of Treasury Under Secretary Stuart Levey.
Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin reported the judgment of the Obama administration's
key Asian policy brain trust, the Center for a New American Security:
think the administration has got this right," said Patrick Cronin, director of
the Asia security program at the Center for a New American Security, who said
that naming companies from countries like China would have only invited
"They want to maximize the potential to put pressure on North Korea and at the
same time not unnecessarily damage the rest of your interests. Smart sanctions
here means getting specific with the entities that are doing the dirty
dealing," he said.
Moreover, designating these entities as targets places them as a higher
priority for intelligence gathering, which has its own intrinsic benefit,
Cronin concluded with some classic analyst-speak:
don't have to 'work' to be useful,". 
addressed the key obstacle to North Korea sanctions: China.
China has not endorsed North Korean culpability for the Cheonan sinking,
let alone implemented sanctions.
The only, faint hope for effective Chinese pressure on North Korea on America's
behalf - and a sanctions regime that really "works" - would be the threat of US
sanctions against Chinese banks and other businesses handling North Korean
And the United States has no interest in going there, at least for now.
It is possibly, as I've argued elsewhere, that the Obama administration is
holding North Korea sanctions against China in reserve to compel Beijing's
cooperation on Iran as needed.
Indeed, considering its full-throated demands for additional US sanctions
against North Korea, the Lee Myung-bak government has been remarkably backward
in supporting the key US foreign policy initiative - Iran sanctions.
The South Korean media reported  on August 27 that South Korea would
probably institute merely "symbolic" sanctions against Iran - a remarkable
statement for a staunch US ally, but an understandable one for an ally that
suspects that the US commitment to North Korea sanctions is only conditional
But, when viewed strictly in the context of Korean affairs, the Obama
administration appears to be folding as promptly as Lee Myung-bak.
But where does this leave China?
The Chinese leadership probably has some serious ambivalence about hitching its
Korea wagon to the fate of the Kim family enterprise.
Circumstance, error, and mismanagement have combined to create an impoverished,
repressive regime with dim long-term prospects.