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View more articles by Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
Sun Tzu, the renowned Chinese military strategist of the Spring and Autumn Period, wrote over two millennia ago that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Beijing, taking a page from his playbook, is apparently balancing North and South Korean aspirations as a means of diminishing American influence on the Korean Peninsula.
Chinese President Xi Jinping went out of his way to foster a warm, personal friendship with South Korea’s Park Geun-hye along the lines of the fabled Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher partnership. Xi skillfully played the Japan card to ingratiate himself to a South Korean public irate over nationalistic Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s repeated insensitivity on a range of history issues. Xi, for example, gave approval for a memorial to anti-Japanese independence fighter Ahn Jung-geun in Harbin in 2014. (This move would play equally well in Pyongyang, especially given that Ahn was a son of the northern Korean province of Hwanghaedo.)
Xi skillfully played the Japan card to ingratiate himself to a South Korean public irate over nationalistic Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s repeated insensitivity
Xi further gave the green light, in this 70th anniversary year of Korean independence from Japanese colonial rule, for the refurbishing of memorial halls in Shanghai and Chongqing where China gave safe haven to the Korean provisional government-in-exile. The United States in contrast, faces a much more controversial history with regard to Imperial Japan’s designs on Korea. President Theodore Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905, which both ended the Russo-Japanese War and ceded a previously independent Korea to effective Japanese control. The linked Taft-Katsura agreement, seen as an American-Japanese gentlemen’s agreement to trade American ascendancy in the Philippines for Japanese ascendancy in Korea, added salt to the wounds of a Korean populace bitter over the contention that America let Korea down at its time of greatest need.
Seoul-Beijing cooperation has been further driven by Xi’s deliberate snubbing of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in favor of Park Geun-hye, especially after Kim publicly humiliated and then executed his uncle, Jang Song Thaek two years ago. Jang was widely seen as being Beijing’s staunchest supporter in the North Korean hierarchy. Xi then traveled last year to Seoul for a summit while conspicuously avoiding any trip to see his North Korean ally. Nor has Kim Jong Un, after almost four years in power, traveled to Beijing to meet with Pyongyang’s only officially professed ally, in stark contrast to his father and grandfather who both paid repeated visits to the Middle Kingdom.
Meanwhile, Seoul drew what appeared to be an overly optimistic conclusion that its newest friend, Xi Jinping, given his frosty relations with Pyongyang, would use his influence to rein in his provocative North Korean ally and perhaps even encourage eventual peaceful Korean re-unification with terms favorable to Seoul. Pyongyang’s continuing provocations, however, including the August DMZ mining which seriously wounded two South Korean soldiers followed by cross-border shelling, should dissuade those who put too much faith in what Beijing could or would do to restrain Kim Jong Un.
Western observers cringed at what appeared to be the unseemly use of an American ally for propaganda purposes
Xi’s “charm” offensive with Park Geun-hye has brought several concrete results for Beijing. South Korea did not agonize very long earlier this year over its “blood ally” Washington’s expressed misgivings before joining other American allies in the rush to become a founding member of Beijing’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Beijing’s loudly proclaimed opposition to the deployment of the U.S. Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea has also resulted in Seoul’s continued vacillation. The greatest triumph, however, was securing Park Geun-hye’s attendance, along with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, at Beijing’s militaristic World War II victory parade. While Seoul commentators trumpeted the scene of South Korea’s president standing on a podium where Kim Jong Un should have been, Western observers cringed at what appeared to be the unseemly use of an American ally for propaganda purposes.
And since the WWII victory parade, that artful dodger Xi Jinping has apparently determined that, given South Korea’s demonstrated accommodating attitude, it is now time to swing back in the direction of Beijing’s traditional North Korean ally. Liu Yunshan, a Politburo Standing Committee member, recently became the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit Pyongyang since Kim Jong Un’s rise to power. Liu was there for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea. The photo of Liu warmly grasping Kim Jong Un’s hand during the massive parade trumpeting Kim’s “third-generation leadership” was telling. It was just as significant as the Tiananmen photo of Park Geun-hye, with Xi and Putin, even if the message was decidedly different.
As China’s Global Times editorialized afterward, all is apparently forgiven with regard to Beijing’s troublesome ally. The Global Times noted that “both sides share a lot of memories in fighting shoulder to shoulder in times of war. The blood, sweat and tears they shed together have forged a strong connection between both sides.” Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, well-noted for its past insightful reporting on high-level Chinese strategic thinking, pointed out on October 18 that: “China’s propaganda machines have also churned out articles proclaiming North Korea’s social and economic achievements under young Kim. State media watchdogs are also censoring online criticism of North Korea, and openly calling on netizens to stop mocking Kim. All this appears to suggest a government push to rehabilitate North Korea’s tattered image among Chinese citizens.” Some credit Beijing with influencing Kim Jong Un’s decision to limit his party anniversary celebrations to a military parade without an accompanying missile launch or nuclear test, although only time will tell on that score.
An even greater triumph for Xi Jinping on Korean Peninsula issues will come at the end of the month when he eclipses Washington again by serving as the potential powerbroker bringing two feuding American allies together. Premier Li Keqiang is scheduled to join South Korean President Park and Japanese Prime Minister Abe in a trilateral Halloween summit in Seoul. Park and Abe, with a beaming Xi Jinping observing, will possibly hold their first sit-down bilateral meeting, presuming that Abe can get through crowds of Seoul demonstrators to reach the summit site. With that major achievement under his belt, perhaps Xi, as a self-proclaimed friend of both Seoul and Pyongyang, can next bypass Washington again and bring Park Geun-hye and Kim Jong Un to Beijing for a similar trilateral encounter?