President Barack Obama’s call for China to put more pressure on North Korea to stop military attacks on South Korea may go unheeded in Beijing, where officials refuse to pin any blame on their ally, analysts say.
Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak called for China to use its influence to control North Korea’s behavior, following yesterday’s deadly artillery salvo. Four people were killed and 20 wounded, mostly soldiers, when Northern forces shelled the island of Yeonpyeong in the first attack of its kind since the 1950-1953 civil war.
“China thinks the most important and urgent goal right now is to make sure there won’t be any escalation of the conflict, rather than finding out who’s responsible,” said Yang Xiyu, a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, a group attached to China’s foreign ministry.
China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner and ally of 60 years, holds that maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula is paramount, and the best way to achieve that is to continue giving economic aid and political support to North Korea.
That sentiment is reflected in China’s official stance toward the artillery exchange. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei yesterday appealed for “dialogue and consultation,” and avoided blame or criticism of North Korea. China’s reaction is similar to its response following the sinking of a South Korean warship in March that killed 46 sailors.
While the U.S., Japan, Australia and the U.K. all backed the findings of an international probe that blamed the sinking on a North Korean torpedo, China did not, arguing that it had not seen the evidence first hand.
In between the two incidents, China and North Korean economic and diplomatic contacts have surged. Two-way trade rose 22.3 percent in the first seven months of this year to $1.65 billion, with Chinese exports to North Korea rising 29.6 percent, according to Chinese customs statistics.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has made an unprecedented two trips to China this year, meeting with President Hu Jintao in May and August. In October Zhou Yongkang, a member of China’s ruling Politburo in charge of the country’s police forces, stood next to Kim during a Pyongyang military parade.
Two weeks later Chinese General Guo Boxiong, another Politburo member, traveled to North Korea to commemorate what he said was their joint “victory” over the “imperialist aggression” by U.S.-led forces during the 1950-53 Korean war.
Obama told Lee in a phone conversation today, Seoul time, that he plans to place a call to China to urge its cooperation on North Korea issues, according to a statement from Lee’s office. Yesterday, Obama told ABC News that China must “make clear to North Korea that there are a set of international rules that they need to abide by.”
Kan, in a separate phone conversation, told Lee that “given China’s influence over North Korea, China should display a stern attitude,” Lee’s office said. Kan also pledged to convey this message to the Chinese.
While China’s stance toward North Korea may not change after this incident, concern is rising in Beijing that an ally of six decades is increasingly a diplomatic liability, said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University.
“This attack proves that North Korea is entirely a minus to China’s foreign policy,” Zhu said. “I see growing frustration and I see a new imperative to overhaul the policy.”
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