While the leaked United States embassy cables appear to suggest widening cracks in China’s relations with North Korea, analysts here have played down the claims as a combination of wishful thinking on the part of South Korean diplomats and a misreading of China’s wider strategic relationship with its long-time ally.
Several cables released by WikiLeaks quoted South Korean officials suggesting increasing frustration among Chinese officials towards the North’s actions – some even describing Pyongyang as a “spoiled child.” The cables even suggest an increasing appetite among Chinese officials for peaceful reunification under South Korean leadership, a claim that contradicts China’s current official line towards the North.
In Beijing however, strategic analysts downplayed the suggestions. “The basic fact is that China benefits from its strategic relations with the North," Gong Keyu, deputy director of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, told The Hindu. "The long-term friendship between the two countries is not going to change.”
A cable from the U.S. embassy in Seoul from February of this year, however, quoted South Korean officials as saying they were told by their Chinese counterparts that China “would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a “benign alliance” – as long as Korea was not hostile towards China.” Another cable quotes the then South Korean Foreign Minister Chun Yung-woo as saying while China’s leaders were divided on how to take the relationship with the North forward, a growing number of younger leaders were willing “to face the new reality” that North Korea had little value to China.
Analysts here say the cables are accurate only as far as describing the internal debate among China’s leaders that took place last year following the North conducting a nuclear test less than 100 km from
the border with China, without alerting the Chinese government. The outcome of the debate, however, was far different from Mr. Chun’s reading, analysts note.
“There was a debate among China’s leaders last year, but they have decided clearly that the North is very important to China,” Ms. Gong said. “It would be completely wrong to think that China-North Korea relations are entirely dependent on one or two issues, such as the nuclear issue.”
Moreover, the cables also point to problems in China’s diplomatic relations with South Korea. In one exchange, Mr. Chun strongly hits out at one of China’s leading diplomats, Wu Dawei. Mr. Chun says it was “a very bad thing” that Mr. Wu led China’s diplomacy in the region, while another unnamed official describes him as “an arrogant, Marx-spouting Red Guard who knows nothing about North Korea” and “nothing about nonproliferation.” Considering that Mr. Wu is China’s special representative for the Korean Peninsula, and leading the negotiations this week amid renewed tensions, the revelations are likely to embarrass, if not strain, the two countries’ interactions.
Other cables show deep personal links between the ruling parties of China and North Korea, suggesting ties are unlikely to change in the near future. “When the child of a high-ranking official hears of a
Chinese aid proposal to North Korea, he will travel to North Korea to convince the relevant official to follow his instructions for implementing the aid project,” a cable said.
One cable described how two Chinese companies, the Shandong Guoda Gold Company and the Wanxiang Group, fought for access to the biggest copper mine in North Korea. It alleges that Wanxiang won the contract because of its close relations with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has said it will not respond to claims contained in the leaked cables.
But analysts here questioned the accuracy of the information, citing the absence of strong evidence in many claims, such as China’s willingness to abandon its relations with the North. “This is opposed to Beijing’s declared position and would go against China's perceived interests,” Shi Yinhong of Renmin University told the Los Angeles Times. “Besides, it is just an American diplomat quoting a South Korean diplomat quoting a Chinese diplomat.”