Criticism of Beijing’s North Korea Policy Comes From Unlikely Place: China
When China’s best-known historian of the Korean War, Shen Zhihua, recently laid out his views on North Korea, astonishment rippled through the audience. China, he said with a bluntness that is rare here, had fundamentally botched its policy on the divided Korean Peninsula. China’s bond with North Korea’s Communist leaders formed even before Mao Zedong’s decision in 1950 to send People’s Liberation Army soldiers to fight alongside them in the Korean War. Mao famously said the two sides were “as close as lips and teeth.” But China should abandon the stale myths of fraternity that have propped up its support for North Korea and turn to South Korea, Mr. Shen said at a university lecture last month in Dalian, a northeastern Chinese port city. “Judging by the current situation, North Korea is China’s latent enemy and South Korea could be China’s friend,” Mr. Shen said, according to a transcript he published online. “We must see clearly that China and North Korea are no longer brothers in arms, and in the short term there’s no possibility of an improvement in Chinese-North Korean relations.”
The speech was a strikingly bold public challenge to Chinese policy, which remains unwilling to risk a break with North Korea even as its nuclear program raises tensions in northeast Asia and beyond. The controversy over Mr. Shen’s views in China has distilled a renewed debate about whether the government should abandon its longstanding patronage of North Korea. China’s “traditionalist view that views the U.S. as a much greater threat than North Korea is deeply entrenched,” Bonnie S. Glaser, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an email. “But the proponents of change are vocal, too. They argue that North Korea is a growing liability.” For decades, China has tried to preserve ties with North Korea as a partner and strategic shield in northeast Asia, even when the North’s leaders became testy and unpredictable. In recent years, though, China has also tried to soothe the United States, build political and business ties with South Korea and help rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
But as North Korea has improved its missiles and nuclear warheads, opening the possibility that it could one day strike the continental United States, China’s go-between approach has become increasingly fraught. North Korea did not hold a nuclear test over the weekend that some had expected, and its missile test on Sunday fizzled. But more tests and launches appear to be only a matter of time, and the Trump administration has pressed China’s president, Xi Jinping, to use much tougher pressure on its neighbor. “The era of strategic patience is over,” Vice President Mike Pence said in South Korea on Monday.
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