Wiki tea leaves do not spell China shift on Korea

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (BestGrowthStock) – A “spoiled child” staging tantrums to win attention; a “threat to the whole world’s security”; a prickly friend who needs patient stroking — leaked U.S. cables have laid bare the quandaries that North Korea poses for China.

Secret U.S. diplomatic messages published this week also have hinted that some Chinese officials, fed up with the provocations of its erstwhile ally, would support a shift in position to accept a reunified Korean state under South Korean control.

But despite the abundant material for tea-leaf reading in the cables, the chances that China has fundamentally changed its mind on the Koreas one day getting back together are slim.

To be sure, North Korea is a constant migraine for China.

The scenarios of a reunified Korea — U.S. troops on the Chinese border and a potentially nuclear-armed Korea — do not make pleasant reading for Beijing policy-makers.

“The Korean peninsula is crucial for China’s security. China has always hoped that the Korean peninsula would have a government that is friendly to China,” said Cai Jian, an expert on Korea at Fudan University in Shanghai.

“Lee Myung-bak’s policy is to hold fast the alliance with the United States,” he said, referring to South Korea’s president. “Under these conditions, I don’t think a reunified Korea controlled by South Korea would be beneficial for China. I don’t think China would support that, as it would raise the possibility of U.S. troops along the Yalu River.

“If Korea reunified, I think China would demand all foreign military forces leave the peninsula, for only then would China recognize the reunification. It would also have to be a neutral country, not obviously aligned with anyone in particular. That would be China’s bottom line,” Cai added.

Communist China was a key backer of North Korean forces in the Korean War and sent soldiers across the border into Korea from October 1950.

After the 1953 armistice, China kept supporting North Korea, helping with its rebuilding and signing a mutual defense treaty. Relations were once described as being “as close as lips and teeth.”

However, after China’s rapprochement with the West and then its establishment of formal diplomatic ties with South Korea in 1992, ties between Beijing and Pyongyang frayed.

In recent years, China has sought to shore up relations and increased aid to its poor neighbor, which it sees as a strategic buffer against the U.S. and its regional allies.

In early May, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il visited China on his first trip abroad since 2006 and he visited again in late August, ahead of the anointment of his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as heir-apparent in the dynastic one-party state.

The threat of a North Korean collapse, releasing a flood of destabilizing refugees into northeast China, worries China perhaps only slightly less than Pyongyang’s nuclear aims.

One U.S. cable describes how Chinese President Hu Jintao “apparently pretended not to hear” South Korea’s Lee when he asked Hu what China’s contingency plans were for the North.

REUNIFICATION “UNSTOPPABLE”

Still, China has in principle always supported the reunification of Korea.

“The reunification of the Korean peninsula is an unstoppable historical process,” said Zhang Lianggui, an expert on North Korea at China’s Central Party School.

“China will not do anything to push reunification if the conditions are not right. And if the conditions are right, China will not stop them from reunifying. Whether China likes it or not is another question. The crucial point is — are both sides willing to reunify?”

The leaked cables cite then-Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei as referring to North Korea as a “spoiled child” — yet the erring parent he points the finger at is the United States, not China, despite its economic and diplomatic help for the North.

“North Korea wanted to engage directly with the United States and was therefore acting like a “spoiled child” in order to get the attention of the ‘adult’,” He is cited as saying by British newspaper The Guardian, which has published the leaks.

China has in any case always said that its influence over the North is far more limited than the outside world imagines.

“If only China were harder on North Korea, Pyongyang would behave — this is laughable logic in the eyes of the Chinese. But it has become gospel in the eyes of South Korean and Western public opinion,” Chinese tabloid the Global Times wrote this week.

“It is deceiving oneself as well as others to suppose that Pyongyang would surrender if China closed the doors, and a smear on the entire Korean people,” said the newspaper, run by Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily.

(Editing by Ron Popeski)

Wiki tea leaves do not spell China shift on Korea