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The China factor

May 04,2018
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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping after their first summit meeting in Beijing in April. [China Central Television]
Tom Coyner
*The author first arrived in Korea in 1975 as a Peace Corps Volunteer, has authored two books on Korea and worked in business in Korea over the past few decades.

Like so many people, I followed this past week’s gestures that dominated the Kim-Moon summit. There was certainly good reason for good vibes, particularly compared to how things appeared six months ago. But what was missing in media coverage was the elephant in the room “with Chinese tendencies.”

Trump, Moon and Kim are welcome to boast what they have superficially achieved, but in all our joy and fuzzy feelings about a new start of peace on the Korean Peninsula, let’s take a moment to look at the events leading up to last week.

First, we saw a wild card of a U.S. president be quick on the quip, calling out foes with insulting monikers. Kim Jong-un was not spared. As a young dictator, Kim had no choice but to respond in kind at the risk of losing face. That in turn led to the two leaders, behaving like schoolyard bullies, escalating their rhetoric. Eventually, Trump sent aircraft carriers and stealth aircrafts into the Korean Peninsula.

Then, Kim thumbed his nose at the Chinese by testing his largest nuke. The vibrations from that explosion were easily felt across the border, which added insult to the slight. Until this point, the moribund North Korean economy was reckoned by economists to have been growing at 2 to 3 percent a year, that is until January, according to the British press, when China slowed down the flow of oil into North Korea as well as belatedly becoming serious about enforcing UN sanctions. Suddenly, the North Koreans witnessed the beginning of an economic nosedive to the tune of minus 1.2 to 1.3 percent.

As the economic squeeze was being felt even inside of Pyongyang, the Winter Olympics took place just south of the demilitarized zone. South Korean President Moon Jae-In enthusiastically welcomed the North’s participation. After much hesitancy, Kim agreed to send some athletes and cheerleaders. Finally, Kim’s sister, representing the leadership, appeared for a few days in Pyeongchang. It was here that the first public talk of summits began.

All of this became truly interesting when, in late March, Kim Jong-un made one of his rare trips abroad to briefly meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. Given the likelihood of a summit with President Moon and later with President Trump, this made a lot of prudent sense. The question that will have to be answered by future historians is who first called whom for Kim’s visit to Beijing?

Let’s keep in mind the old adage that a leopard doesn’t change its spots overnight. We did, however, witness a Korean dictator do an immediate about-face in demeanor after appearing on the carpet with the world’s most powerful autocrat. We have no proof, but I suspect we may eventually discover that in private, Xi read Kim the riot act.

In other words, recent events had already been going too far against China’s interests by its wayward “ally.” China once paid a big price when Kim Il Sung convinced Joseph Stalin to force a reluctant Mao Zedong to send Chinese “volunteer forces” into a slugfest with the Americans and its allies 70 years ago. Clearly, China was not willing to risk Kim Jong-un bumbling into a similar situation.

Consequently, last week, we unexpectedly discovered a very friendly Kim Jong-un just short of hamming it up with President Moon on television. But behind the curtain, President Xi continued pulling the strings as part of his purposely under-publicized strategy to first dampen tensions on the peninsula as a part of a long-term strategy to further assert China’s role in East Asia, including eventual removal of American forces and the United States’ nuclear umbrella.

Unfortunately for most journalists covering last week’s summit, that stealth Chinese behavior made for a less than exciting copy, devoid of photogenic images. A couple of academics did mention the strategic role that China was playing in largely orchestrating current events. But most journalists seemed to be mesmerized by the wide array of shiny objects that dazzled observers, enthusiastically noting “significant” gestures and Kim’s new choice of words.

And yet, the final off-the-cuff comments by the Korean leaders may have said it all. After formally signing the accord, President Moon proclaimed the beginning of a nuke-fee peninsula. In contrast, Chairman Kim announced he looked forward to a unified Korea.

Even though no significant actions have yet taken place, great jubilation has already been made. So far, the only concrete changes have been limited to the South turning off its DMZ propaganda speakers and the North offering inspections of at least one closed nuclear test site as well as adjusting its clocks by 30 minutes. To be clear, I look forward to real peace on this peninsula. But so far, those leopard spots have not really disappeared.