How China Protects North Korea From the South

Click the image above for a photo gallery of Kim Jong Il's family

For South Koreans, it’s official: North Koreans sank their warship Cheonan on March 26, killing 46 Southern sailors onboard. The evidence leaves little doubt. And with this clarity comes the realization that, after 10 years of engagement and aid, North Korea remains a dangerously irrational and belligerent country, willing to gamble that it can disrupt peace on the Korean peninsula at no cost. Problem is, there’s nothing South Koreans can do about it—even they’ve faced the facts—because China is standing in the way.

What South Korea wants is to ostracize the North, elicit a reprimand from the United Nations, and possibly even enact international sanctions. (They have not talked openly about military retribution.) But while China is the South’s biggest trading partner, largest investment destination, and a close ally, its government is hearing none of it. In fact, China will always favor the North and turn a blind eye to its antics. After all, they are socialist allies who fought alongside each other during the Korean War.

The willingness to indulge the North was evident right away. First, Beijing refused to criticize Pyongyang after the attack, and now authorities continue to bite their tongues even after the joint probe produced seemingly incontrovertible evidence linking the Stalinist regime with the sinking. The investigation recovered parts of a torpedo at the sinking site that had North Korean writing. Its structure was identical to a blueprint shown on a brochure the North put out to export its torpedoes. Immediately after the announcement, the U.S. and Japan issued sharp criticism of the North, but China called on all parties to “stay calm and exercise restraint.”

Beijing also flummoxed Seoul early this month with its warm reception of Kim Jong Il, during the dictator’s visit to China just five weeks after the Cheonan sinking, when all of South Korea was mourning the deaths. Furious, the South Korean government summoned China’s ambassador to a minister’s office and chewed him out. Southern authorities were particularly upset that the Chinese didn’t even bother to tell President Lee Myung-bak of Kim’s upcoming visit when the South Korean leader visited China three days before his northern counterpart.

To South Koreans, this behavior is mystifying—especially considering how much trade they have with China. Chung Mong-jun, president of the ruling Grand National Party, told an interviewer that China should consider severing its military alliance with the North. Pointing out Beijing’s preference for political and military relations with the North over economic relations with the South, Jugan Chosun, an influential weekly in Seoul, proclaimed in a cover story: BLOOD WAS THICKER THAN MONEY.

Now China is dithering on an international effort to reprimand the North. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Seoul next week to “send a clear message to North Korea that provocative actions have consequences.” But analysts say it will be difficult to agree on—and implement—meaningful international action against the North without China’s cooperation. A U.N. sanction is already in place against the impoverished economy to condemn its nuclear and missile tests, but the North still survives due mainly to China’s food and oil aid. “We have known all along that China is on the North’s side,” says Ryu Gil-jae at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “Now that the U.S. and South Korea are pressuring North Korea, China doesn’t want to drive the North into a corner.”

Critics also question the role China has played during the past several years to resolve the North’s nuclear weapons problem. China hosted the six-party talks since the early 2000s, but the negotiations failed to stop Pyongyang and China never got tough on the North. While buying time through the talks, the North has already tested two nuclear weapons.

Still, Pyongyang has behaved so badly that analysts are beginning to think China could, someday, hang it out to dry. Kim Jong Il is being flayed across the world for sinking the Cheonon, and experts think China could come to think defending him is too much trouble. “China will realize that the North in the long run is a liability rather than an asset,” says Lee Jung-min at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “There are high chances China will tilt away from the North to the international community.” As evidence, he points to a growing number of voices in the Chinese academia that criticize Beijing’s defense of Pyongyang. The question is, when will Chinese authorities finally listen?