The Other Side’s Best Friend

Kin-ming Liu – The New York Sun

The New York Sun January 24, 2006 Copyright 2006 The New York Sun
January 24, 2006
Kim Jong Il reminds me of Mao Zedong. The Chinese dictator, when he was alive, lived behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy, so that very few knew anything about his life and his world, including where he lived or where he was. When Mao flew, every other plane in China was grounded.
When his special train moved, the country’s railway system was thrown into chaos as other trains were not allowed to be anywhere near his.
“Throughout his reign, he lived in his own country as if in a war zone,” wrote Jung Chang and her husband Jon Halliday of the Chinese communist monster in their “Mao: The Unknown Story.” Wherever Mao might set foot, the grounds were swept by Russian mine detectors and Chinese soldiers walking shoulder-to-shoulder as human minesweepers.
One episode described in “Mao” was particularly telling. On the eve of his inauguration as China’s supreme leader, deep fear was lurking in the recesses of Mao’s mind. Madame Mao told a visiting friend that the chairman was all right, “except he would tremble when he saw strangers.”
The visitor was puzzled as Mao looked well. Mao then interjected: “You are an old friend, not a stranger.” Ms. Chang and Mr. Halliday said, “It seems Mao knew that his terrorization had produced not only mass conformity, but quite a few would-be assassins.”
The “Dear Leader” from North Korea also seems to be suffering from the same paranoia. Mr. Kim’s recent visit to China, his fourth since 2000, was so secretive that it was not confirmed by Beijing and Pyongyang until after his train had left China.
Like father, like son. Mr. Kim, like his father Kim Il Sung, the founding
father of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is thought to have
an aversion to flying and has almost always traveled by train under tight
secrecy on his rare visits abroad. The stealth underscores Mr. Kim’s
insecurity. Shortly after his last trip to China in April 2004, an
explosion took place on a railway line used by him.
Mr. Kim, paying an “unofficial” visit to China from January 10 to 18,went
to six cities and met with the entire top Chinese leadership, according
to China Daily. Mr. Kim toured the southern city of Shenzhen, right north
of Hong Kong, where, as a special economic zone, capitalism was first
allowed after the death of Mao. Mr. Kim was said to be greatly impressed
by the result of China’s reform and opening-up policy. It gives hope to
some that North Korea might follow its big brother’s footsteps. The
Chinese message to the North Korean guest, I think, is more likely to be:
“Don’t worry about opening up the economy. Look, we still can keep a
tight lid on politics.”
Another southern city that Mr. Kim paid a visit to was Zhuhai, adjacent
to the former Portuguese colony of Macau. Last September, the U.S.
Treasury Department ordered all American financial institutions not to do
business with Banco Delta Bank in Macau. The bank was accused of
spreading counterfeit money printed in North Korea and laundering money
earned through drugs and weapons of mass destruction. The fake $100
bills, called “supernotes,” are considered the highest-quality forgeries
in the world. Macau authorities later seized the bank and supposedly put
a stop to its dealings with Pyongyang.
In this, perhaps, lies the real reason for the visit. Hurt by American
sanctions, Pyongyang must turn to its only close ally for help. Mr. Kim
was quoted by the Chinese state press thanking Chinese leaders “for
rendering disinterested assistance” to North Korea “each time it faced
difficulties.”
China has become the main source of fuel and consumer goods for North
Korea, estimated to supply at least 40% of its food and 90% of its oil.
After the visit of the Chinese Communist Party chief, Hu Jintao, to
Pyongyang last October, North Korea was reportedly to have received as
much as $2 billion in aid.
Interestingly, just when Mr. Kim was leaving China, the assistant
secretary of state, Christopher Hill, the top American negotiator in the
six-party talks, made a brief and apparently unscheduled return trip to
Beijing at the end of a visit to the region. Song Min-soon, the South
Korean negotiator, was also reported to have made an unannounced visit to
Beijing around the same time. Mr. Hill, trying to revive the stalled
talks, declined to confirm or deny that he had met any North Korean
official.
The six-party talks, involving America, China,Russia, Japan, and the two
Koreas, perhaps not unexpectedly, do not seem to be moving toward the
goal of disarming Pyongyang. “In an epoch it is supposed to dominate,
America has been reduced to relying on China – the other side’s best
friend – to craft a solution critical to its future. What kind of policy
is that?” asked Gordon Chang, author of the newly-released “Nuclear
Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World.”
Skeptical of Beijing’s effort in pushing its North Korean friends to give
up the nukes, last year I had a chance to ask Mr. Hill what he thought
China could do more to help. He said, “We need to solve it and the
Chinese understand that better than anybody.” The hope is that Beijing
will decide to become a stakeholder and impose the right solution on
Pyongyang. But don’t bet on it.
China, if it wishes to, could almost unplug and switch off North Korea
overnight. Considering a controlled crisis in the Korean Peninsula is an
issue for the Yankees only, Beijing is going through the motions to help
Washington, hoping to get something in return: Taiwan. Mr. Chang said
that the Chinese have repeatedly suggested that for China to give up
North Korea, America has to agree to abandon Taiwan. “That deal, which
envisions the destruction of an emerging democracy, is too cynical to
contemplate,” he wrote.
Being resolute remains America’s best tool in dealing with North Korea. I
agree with Mr. Chang’s suggestion: “If China believed that America was
about to resort to force, it would do most anything to prevent regional
conflict, perhaps even apply real pressure on Pyongyang.” In February
2003,China cut off oil for three days. In June 1994, China voiced the
possibility of stopping food and oil supplies. Both times, North Korea
took the hint and softened its position afterward.
Mr. Liu is a former Washington-based columnist of Hong Kong’s Apple
Daily.

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