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Shim Jae Hoon

Kim's Tough Choice

SHIM Jae Hoon

Apr. 19, 2006

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North Korea's relations with China are changing for the better. Kim Jong Il, chairman of the National Defense Commission, visited China at the beginning of this year. Analysts say the Kim regime, which had planned setting up a special economic zone in Sinuiju in September 2002, will now revive efforts to establish a special administrative district in the area. Jang Song Thaek, Kim's brother-in-law and first deputy chief of the organization and guidance committee of the ruling Workers Party, has also visited China, underscoring the improving bilateral ties. In 2005, prominent Chinese officials visited North Korea in droves. In 2006, their North Korean counterparts made return visits. A series of these developments are telltale signs of changing relations between the two neighbors.

In the past, many experts used to claim that the China-North Korea relations have been transformed since the 1990s. But notwithstanding their differences, these two countries have basically kept their relations close.

They turned sour in 1992 when Beijing established diplomatic relations with Seoul. Between 2002 and 2003, the Beijing-Pyongyang relations worsened due to discords over the North's plan to set up a special economic district in the border city of Sinuiju. Before President Hu Jintao's inauguration in 2003, his predecessor Jiang Zemin had been unhappy over Kim's lukewarm attitude towards reform; he thus appeared reluctant to provide a full support to Kim's Stalinist regime.

Afterwards, China went so far as to arrest Yang Bin, Chinese businessman with Dutch citizenship appointed by North Korea to oversee the implementation of the Sinuiju administrative district.

However, President Hu recognizes the need for China developing the three northeastern provinces near the North. He believes that China should reinforce its security by improving relations with neighboring countries including North Korea. Relations with the North have thus improved under such perception.

A series of visits by high-profile Chinese officials to Pyongyang in 2005 was the harbinger of improving relations. China's efforts became more pronounced in October 2005 when President Hu visited Pyongyang before his scheduled state visit to South Korea .

Kim paid a return visit to China shortly before the Lunar New Year's Holiday this year. His brother in law Jang has also visited China . Given such exchange of visits by prominent leaders of the two countries, their relations appear to have restored the warmth of the level of the pre-1990s.

South Korea must watch how the changing relations will affect the North-South relations, and the North's relations with Northeast Asia . Pyongyang isn't likely to dramatically change its stance toward Seoul or Tokyo . Indeed, Pyongyang could take a more over-bearing and militant attitude towards Seoul as the North has now acquired a strong supporter in Beijing . Signs of this hardening attitude include the North's refusal to resume the six-party talks and its high-handed manner of dealing with the South's media at the recent reunion of separated families in the North.

North Korea is likely to take a similar attitude to the US and Japan . As for China , she evidently hopes Pyongyang will play its due role as a member of the international community. But it basically supports the North's policy lines even while being concerned over the possibility of the North suddenly changing position, bringing uncertainty in relations with China . Their bilateral relations therefore will have two different aspects. First, China acts as messenger for the North to the international community, and second, it will act as spokesman for the North. Their relations will ultimately become much closer.

Against this background, how should South Korea efficiently respond to these changes? The answer is close cooperation with China . Joint efforts with the US and other Northeast Asian countries can be also helpful in dealing with Pyongyang .

The writer is vice president of Trinity Capital Development Partners, Inc. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the publication that carries them.
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