China tends to its universally-despised, never-say-die Communist ally

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By Donald Kirk,

SEOUL — China is mending fences with North Korea after signing off on “condemnation” of North Korea’s failed missile launch while the North ratchets up the decibel level of invective against South Korea and the United States.

The confluence of revived warmth between North Korea and China and rising rhetoric against the North’s main foes appears as intrinsic in North Korea’s desire to go on firing missiles and testing nukes as “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-Un consolidates his power behind generals spoiling to show off the North’s military might.

Chinese soldiers patrolling the North Korea-China border near Dandong, in China's northeast Liaoning province. /AFP

Such disturbing signals do not necessarily mean, however, that the Chinese really are endorsing North Korea’s aims — or for that matter that they are entirely comfortable with the trouble the North Koreans are posing by defying advice to cool it and focus on hunger and disease on the home front.

Statements emerging from a quick weekend trip to Beijing by Kim Yong-Il, international secretary of the North’s Workers’ Party, had a self-consciously polite tone that gave the impression of teeth-gritting, forced-smiley conversations while the two sides settled into their first heart-to-heart conflab since the missile launch.

Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) labelled a meeting between Kim Yong-Il and Wang Jiarui, his opposite number in the hierarchy of the Chinese Communist Party, a “strategic dialogue” in which, lo and behold, they “exchanged views on further developing the friendly and cooperative relations between the two parties and two countries and matters of mutual concern.”

That tongue-twister raised the question of whether their relations had really been “cooperative” of late and whether their “mutual concern” had to do with the wisdom of investing in missiles what it costs to feed North Koreans for a year.

Although the KCNA neglected to say so, the Chinese Foreign Ministry revealed that Kim Yong-Il also met Wang Jiarui’s superior, Dai Bingguo, whose post of state councilor makes him the most influential Chinese official below President Hu Jintao when it comes to dealing with North Korea.

The version of the meeting on the ministry’s website indicates that Kim may have gotten a formally frosty reception. Dai was quoted as saying what should ordinarily not have needed saying, namely that China was “willing to work with North Korea to take friendly cooperation to new heights.” Did he also have to note that “traditional friendship” with the North was “a precious treasure for our two parties, two countries and our peoples?”

All this verbiage was totally bereft of any mention of the North’s missile or nuclear program — though Dai did express pro forma “confidence that under the leadership of Kim Jong-Un … the Korean party, government and people will constantly score new successes in building a strong and prosperous country.”

The question, after Kim Yong-Il’s foray to Beijing, was whether the Chinese had urged North Korea to go easy on the missile-and-nuclear testing, at least until maybe another round of diplomacy. A secondary question was whether the North Koreans, who can be quite obstreperous in dealings with their Chinese benefactors, would be willing to listen. Yet another question was whether the Chinese, confronted by North Korean obstinacy, would do anything, like cutting off some of the fuel and food the North needs to survive, to get them to knock it off.

As of now, it would seem the North Koreans may not be inclined to follow the Chinese advice — at least when it comes to threats if not to carrying them out. The North’s armed forces on Monday said it had a plan for “special actions” involving “methods of our own style,” each of several minutes duration.

The threat evoked memories of the sinking of the navy corvette the Cheonan in the Yellow Sea in March 2010 and the shelling of nearby Yeonpyeong Island eight months later.

There was no telling if North Korea would turn the latest dire threat into reality, but certainly North Korean attacks on South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak did not bode well for the prospects of reconciliation on the Korean peninsula.

North Korean propaganda-writers appeared to be dreaming up just about every insulting turn of phrase imaginable in castigating President Lee, who had the temerity to suggest the North worry about feeding its people.

It would be tough to top the line, all on KCNA, that “Lee is no more than human scum” for having “so malignantly desecrated this significant holiday” — a reference to the mammoth centennial celebration on April 15 of the birth of Kim Jong-Un’s grandfather, founding “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung.

Although Lee refrained from saying what he thought of the birthday party, KCNA viewed his reference to the cost of the missile as “a hideous provocative act of seriously hurting the noble feelings of the Korean people” while besmirching “the great jubilee in human history.”

All this might not have been all that upsetting had the North not linked it to a threat against South Korea that seemed a little worrisome. All the North Koreans now needed, said KCNA, was “an order they may now mercilessly punish the traitor.”

While this capital bustled with people to whom North Korea was the least of their worries, North Korea wants South Koreans to be on guard. “In case something happens on the peninsula now,” KCNA warned darkly, “the responsibility will entirely rest with traitor Lee.”

What does such talk mean? Could the North have really been serious about “sacred war against South Korea”? Does North Korea, with hundreds of both short-range missiles capable of hitting anywhere in South Korea and artillery pieces within easy range of the Seoul-Incheon megalopolis, really plan to “blow up Seoul over alleged defamation of the North”?

A much more immediate question was whether North Korea was gearing up for its third underground nuclear test as suggested in satellite imagery showing excavation around the site of the two previous tests in October 2006 and May 2009. The test seemed altogether possible in view of the sequence of those tests — the former after the failure of the launch of a long-range missile in July 2006, the latter six weeks after the successful launch of another such missile in April 2009.

The difference between the third test and the two previous ones is that it may be the first in which the device is produced with highly enriched uranium rather than plutonium. North Korea has shut down its five-megawatt reactor at its nuclear complex at Yongbyon but is fabricating centrifuges with enriched uranium at a relatively new facility on the same site.

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, has said he doubts if the Chinese “are cooperating” with the North Koreans on such nuclear projects, but he also questions if the Chinese are doing much to stop them.

Yes, he said, “It looks like” North Korea is “preparing for a third nuclear test” — possibly with one of the dozen plutonium devices it’s already built, possibly with highly enriched uranium or conceivably with a plutonium device sheathed by highly enriched uranium.

North Korea is keeping quiet about whatever it’s got in mind for a nuclear test but is compensating for the failure of the missile with a display of bravado.

“The US and Japanese reactionaries and their followers may cry” and “the Lee Myung-Bak group of rats may squeak”, said one colorful dispatch from KCNA, but the North’s “satellites for peaceful purposes will be put into space one after another.”

That’s assuming that any satellite was attached to the failed rocket — or that North Korea put satellites into orbit as claimed in its launches in August 1998 and April 2009. Scientists have seen no sign of any North Korean satellites in orbit — and no proof the North has any satellite program at all.

Donald Kirk, a long-time journalist in Asia, is author of the newly published Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.

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