Tensions appear to be quickly mounting between the erstwhile allies North Korea and China.
Last week I noted that North Korea has reportedly begun hanging banners declaring that China is “a turncoat and our enemy” at its Kang Kon Military Academy. The characterization of China as a “turncoat and our enemy” was coined by Kim Il-Sung, North Korea’s eternal leader, in 1992 but has been invoked by Pyongyang on a number of occasions since to express its displeasure toward Beijing.
The feeling seems to be mutual these days, if the Global Times—a state-run Chinese newspaper—is any indication. As my colleague Shannon noted earlier today, the Global Times published an editorial on Thursday that contained unusually harsh criticism of North Korea. Although the editorial focused primarily on North Korea’s nuclear program, it also includes some other more general criticisms of Pyongyang. For example, it stated: “If Pyongyang continues to follow this [nuclear] path, it will suffer long-term isolation by the international community and the country’s poverty will never be eliminated. The risks these factors pose to the Pyongyang regime can hardly be offset even if North Korea truly becomes a nuclear state.” North Korea has been extremely critical of foreign leaders that characterize North Korea as being wrecked by poverty.
The Global Times editorial also suggested that North Korea’s claims about its nuclear progress were exaggerated, and warned against trying to exploit the divergence between China and America’s approaches towards its nuclear program. “The North’s nuclear issue has caused some divergence between China and the US,” the editorial stated. “If Pyongyang thinks this provides an opportunity for it to further develop its nuclear capabilities, it should give up such fantasies.”
At other points in the piece, the Global Times characterized North Korea’s heavy reliance on missile and nuclear tests as a clear demonstration of its overall weakness. “Nuclear tests and missile launches have become Pyongyang’s only diplomatic cards, which is unfortunate for Pyongyang and the entire Northeast Asia.” Similarly, it said the reason why North Korea emphasizes its nuclear program so much is because “Pyongyang’s deterrence is so weak that it has no other ‘leverage’ than nuclear weapons.” Nonetheless, the Global Times dismissed North Korea’s nuclear technology as primitive, and said that it is “not enough to truly deter Washington.” As a result, the Global Times said that North Korea should abandon its long followed path of isolation in Northeast Asia.
China has not limited itself to media criticisms of North Korea, however. As I noted earlier today, in response to North Korea’s medium-range ballistic missile tests last week, the UN Security Council openly condemned Pyongyang. This would not have been possible without China’s acquiesce (North Korea responded by threatening to conduct a “new form” of nuclear test, which was the proximate impetus for the Global Times’ editorial).
Probably more disconcerting for North Korean leaders, China has openly backed South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s new initiative that aims to ease the eventual reunification of the two Koreas, which have been divided since the end of WWII. Park made this initiative a central focus of her trip to Germany last week, stating: “Germany is an example and a model for a peaceful reunification of our own country.” Park also said while in Germany that she saw three ways to bring the Koreas closer together: more family reunions, more humanitarian aid and helping to build up North Korean infrastructure.
On Thursday, China came out strongly in favor of Park’s proposal. During a press conference, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated: “China always supports the ROK (South Korea) and the DPRK (North Korea) in improving their relations through dialogue, promoting reconciliation and finally realizing an independent unity.” This followed comments Chinese President Xi Jinping made during a meeting with Park on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit last week, in which Xi announced his support for an “independent and peaceful reunification” of the two Koreas.
North Korea has been far less enthusiastic about President Park’s initiative. In fact, earlier this week North Korea’s state media blasted Park’s reunification plan for having a “sinister intention for ‘unification by absorption,’ which will escalate north-south confrontation and war danger and keep national division permanently.” The report was laced with extremely sexiest language directed toward Park, and suggested that she had given the speech in Germany because if she had made it in South Korea, “she would be shot to death like her father.” Its overarching conclusion was that Park had brought disgrace upon the Korean nation.
It’s worth noting, however, that North Korea has not stood idle as China has ratcheted up its rhetoric and actions toward Pyongyang. To begin with, it has opened up an official dialogue with Japan, a country that China is increasingly at odds with.
Similarly, South Korea media reports this week indicate that “North Korea has reinforced customs checks on shipments of mining products to China,” which has hindered North Korean exports to China and Chinese investment into North Korea’s economic development zones. New trade restrictions were anticipated following last December’s execution of Jang Song-thaek, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle and the then-second most powerful individual in North Korea. Jang was largely seen as the North’s main interlocutor with the Chinese and a proponent of focusing on economic development. Among the long-list of trumpeted up charges that were leveled against Jang following his purge was the accusation that he had allowed foreigners to exploit North Korea’s natural resources and land, which was widely seen as a not-so-subtle reference to Jang’s economic dealings with China.