Xi Jinping arrived in Seoul today on a groundbreaking trip.
Analysts in Asia, where symbolism is closely watched, invest the visit with great significance. Xi, after all, is the first Chinese leader to travel to the South Korean capital before going to Pyongyang. “The message,” says John Delury of Yonsei University in Seoul, “is that if North Korea continues to keep Beijing at a distance and not work harder to keep China happy, then China will tilt towards South Korea.”
The oft-quoted Delury is undoubtedly correct, and his remark suggests that China thinks it can ultimately shape events to its liking. Most everyone outside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as the North calls itself, agrees, believing Beijing to be the main actor on the Korean peninsula.
We see China’s moves and marvel at its power. There is no doubt that Beijing is working to pry South Korea away from the United States, but we should understand it is a project doomed to failure, especially as long as the Chinese continue to back the North Koreans and lay claim to South Korean waters. At most, Beijing, by planning Xi’s itinerary as it has, is signaling displeasure with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s youngish leader, but this means China is merely reacting to the Kimist state. As Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang correctly said, no one should “over-read” the sequence of Xi’s visits.
China, for all its centuries of dealing with the Koreans, is still trying to figure out the situation on the peninsula. And while it searches for a policy, it is hoping to make the two Koreas compete for Chinese support. So far, Beijing is making some headway, at least in the South Korean capital.
Yet not in Pyongyang, where China’s policy looks far less successful. And we have to remember that it is the North Koreans, not the Chinese, who are driving events on the Korean peninsula. Strong nations—China, South Korea, and the United States—are reacting to Pyongyang’s seemingly perplexing moves.
Take, for example, the growing rapprochement between two states that have looked to be enemies for decades. Pyongyang and Tokyo met in Beijing on Tuesday to talk about the Japanese nationals abducted by the Kim regime for various nefarious purposes, including language training for terrorists.
The Japanese abductees are about the last thing that Kim would ordinarily want to discuss, but he is cozying up to the enemy of his enemy, as veteran journalist Donald Kirk notes. The North Koreans, Kirk points out, are tired of lectures from Beijing, and they are looking for friends to serve as counterweights to the increasingly overbearing Chinese. The Japanese, on the other hand, want allies in their efforts to protect themselves from China, which has growing designs on an increasing number of their islands.
There are real limits to accommodation between Tokyo and Pyongyang—and Beijing and Seoul for that matter—but as the diplomatic initiatives continue, relationships on the Korean peninsula will evolve in ways difficult to predict at this time. North Korea can change the dynamic in North Asia in an instant, which means Kim will probably do that soon. The geopolitical landscape of the region in the second part of this decade could—and probably will—look quite different than that in the first.
We now have the notion that big China can push weak North Korea around, but the North Koreans will push back. With Xi Jinping in Seoul, China makes a bold move, but Pyongyang will counter soon.
Photo Credit: Korea.net