China’s war commemorations on September 3 have stirred up various emotions and opinions around the world. The military parade symbolized China’s takeoff as a superpower which can compete with the United States (U.S.) Though President Xi Jinping pledged disarmament plans, the weapons displayed in the parade were definitely ones that could pose a threat to the national security of the U.S. Furthermore, the original purpose of the ceremony was commemorating the victory against the Japanese, which inevitably led to Japan’s complaints.
By attending such a ceremony, President Park Geun Hye and her administration showed not only a strong tie with China but also a strong will for balanced and pragmatic diplomacy. Despite direct and indirect pressures from allies, she accepted China’s request to attend the ceremony. Reciprocating with Park’s forward-looking attitude, the Chinese government treated her with exceptional respect. Standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin who was right beside Xi, Park spectated at the military parade on the fortress of Tiananmen.
Park standing with Xi and Putin provoked the discontent of not only Washington but also another key player of Northeast Asia, North Korea. In fact, China has been the most significant ally of the North. The People’s Liberation Army of China fought with the North Korean army in the Korean War, rescuing the North from the verge of collapse. Vice Marshal Choe Ryonghae, the representative of the North who attended the ceremony, had to stay in the very last line of foreign leaders on the fortress.
The arrangement of the position at the ceremony implied the drastic change in the South Korea-China relationship and the North Korea-China relationship. Korean media compared the image of Park standing beside Xi with the former North Korean premier Kim Il-sung’s image standing beside Mao Zedong at the military parade which was held about 60 years ago.
On the surface, the recent changes of Chinese diplomatic policies suggest that China has started to put more emphasis on the South Korea-China relationship. President Park and President Xi have stressed the significance of the partnership between the two nations, coming up with different measures to facilitate cooperation in various areas. The Xi regime has tried to improve the amicable relationship, building the An Jung Geun memorial museum at the Harbin station and remodeling the office of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea located in Shanghai. Furthermore, Xi visited Seoul before visiting the North, breaking with precedent.
▲ Professor Lee Jeong-nam. (Asiatic Research Institute). Photographed by Lee Hye-Jin.
“It could be interpreted as a change in the paradigm of Xi’s policies on the Korean peninsula,” said Professor Lee Jung-nam (Asiatic Research Institute). Chinese leaders have hitherto used balanced diplomacies in the peninsula, but the pendulum was on the side of the North. “Now, Xi has come up with a new balance strategy, treating both the South and the North as independent partners,” she described.
On the other hand, China has taken a hardline policy towards North Korea after the third nuclear test. There are increasing concerns about the threat that the reclusive regime is posing on the Northeast Asian region. To make matters worse, the North’s provocations result in the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” policy and Japan’s rearmament, which could be a larger threat to China.
▲ The military parade of the Chinese army which was held on September 3. Provided by Xinhua.
In addition, some argue that the geopolitical value of North Korea is decreasing due to the emergence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and cyber war. As a result, some Chinese scholars even suggest that the Chinese government should give up the North. “Regardless of probability, the fact that such suggestions are freely released without the inspection of the government is significant,” said Lee.
▲ Mao Zedong and Kim Il-sung at the fortress of Tinanmen. Provided by Xinhua.
Then, how should one interpret the real intention of China? It is an undeniable truth that North Korea is a diplomatic burden for China. Openly supporting a rogue nation which continuously makes the stability of the region unsettled could be a large loss to China’s soft power. Nevertheless, “under the current structure, China will not give up the North,” Lee said. Giving up the Kim regime means supporting reunification led by South Korea, which is a major ally of the U.S.
“Unless the current triangular cooperation of Korea, U.S., and Japan ends, Seoul-led reunification will be a large strategic burden for China,” Lee uttered. Even though China seems to have given up Pyeongyang-led reunification, facing the U.S. army on its northeast border will be the most undesirable scenario for the nation. In fact, China has come up with some measures to improve the stagnated relationship with North Korea. “It is alleged that China has resumed energy aids toward the North in late 2014, also loosening some sanctions on personal exchanges,” Lee added.
Overall, though it is true that China and North Korea are no longer blood allies, a rosy view towards the current situation should be rejected. On a more macroscopic view, Korea is facing a drastic change in the state of international situations. “If Northeast Asia before the 19th century was led by China, the region after the 19th century was led by the U.S. Now, we are expecting another major change of international order in this area,” Lee said.
▲ Park Geun Hye and Xi Jinping walking up to the fortress of Tinanmen. Provided by The Chosun Ilbo.
It is high time that Korea prepare a long-term blueprint for its diplomacy, taking reunification into consideration. “Although the Park administration’s orientation towards balanced diplomacy is desirable, there should be longterm plans at this significant period,” Lee uttered. Whether Korea becomes a beneficiary of the change or suffers an irrecoverable loss is now in the hands of Korea.