Analysis: North Korea’s Protectors, China and Russia


Obviously it would be an exaggeration to call the tension surrounding the military exercise conducted by South Korea on tiny Yeonpyeong Island, scene of last month’s North Korean shelling that resulted in 4 South Korean dead, reminiscent of the 1950 Korean War.

Obviously China and Russia have no interest in encouraging a North Korean attack against the south or intervening militarily on Pyongyang’s behalf as they did during the Korean War when unreported Soviet pilots in unmarked planes participated.

Both Moscow and Beizhing  consider South Korea an important trading partner and if they harbored any real animosity towards her, they would have vetoed Ban Ki Moon’s nomination to the post of U.N. Secretary General. Yet at the same time both Russia and China have provided North Korea with diplomatic cover and prevented UN Security Council Resolutions that would have unequivocally condemned North Korea both for its sinking of a South Korean vessel and the shelling. 

And on the other hand, in the run up to the South Korean exercise, the two powers sought and obtained a Security Council meeting on Sunday that beseeched Seoul to cancel the test.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin justified Russia’s call for a Security Council meeting by the need to send “a restraining signal” to North Korea and jumpstart a diplomatic solution to the dispute. China warned against acts that could “sabotage regional peace and stability.” 

This approach drew the ire of South Korea. A spokesman at the South Korean presidential residence Blue House lashed out against Russia and China: “Did we ever oppose a military exercise by China or Russia?” he asked. “The security council should not discuss our plan for a firing drill, but first discuss how to punish the North for its uranium enrichment and attacking civilians on Yeonpyeong Island.” 

South Korea’s opposition, that when in power conducted a “Sunshine Diplomacy” of befriending and aiding the North, had urged restraint and a stop of the drills, saying:

“President Lee must issue an immediate stop of fire drills and keep in mind that the people want dialogue, instead of a crisis, and peace rather than war,”

The opposition’s approach was briefly popular in South Korea but has lost favor following the North Korean nuclear tests and the recent shelling.  Opinion within the ruling Grand National Party called for a firm stance.

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, who on Nov. 29 apologized for what he called the military’s weak response to North Korea’s Nov. 23 shelling.and sacked the defense minister,  had no option but to stand firm and issue counterthreats. Newly appointed Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin has vowed to hit back hard in a counterstrike that would include air power if North Korea attacks again. Seoul has put its F-15K and KF-16 fighters on standby.

South Korea enjoyed robust backing from Japan and the United States. At the Security Council, American UN Ambassador Susan Rice rejected a tepid approach to both sides to display restraint:  “We think that it is very important for the council to be able to speak with clarity and unity to condemn these attacks as unprovoked aggression by D.P.R.K. against the Republic of Korea.“ An even more important symbolic act was the decision by the United States to send observers to the military exercise, meaning that a North Korean attack could result in American casualties.

China has defended its policy as motivated by the desire to prevent suffering on both sides of the Korean peninsula and urged Presidents Lee and Barack Obama to embrace its approach so they can record accomplishments to secure their place in history. They encouraged  scoring a diplomatic success to justify a second term in Obama’s case.  Chinese diplomats have also warned that an isolated North Korea would be more reckless and therefore it was necessary to eschew condemnation.

If one was to believe China’s news agency Xinhua, a major factor in the crisis is Lee’s poor choice of allies. “If South Korea eventually cools off and heads to the six-party negotiating table, as recently suggested by China, progress can be made, he said. “But it will not happen anytime soon — Seoul, Washington and Tokyo have been adamant in their opposition to returning to the talks before Pyongyang takes some responsible steps..”

What accounts for the “evenhanded” Russian and Chinese approach to the Korean Crisis?  This can no longer be explained by Communist solidarity.

For Russia this is simply self-interest. Russia does not fear North Korea or its nuclear program, but it knows that it vexes the US, Japan and Korea. Therefore Russia knows that as in the case of Iran, it can barter its cooperation on Korea in return for consideration on other issues such as arms limitation treaties with the United States. 

China still has sentiments for the North Korean regime that assisted the Chinese communists during the Chinese civil war by providing a rear base and combatants. Secondly, North Korea has been associated with China and China has built a reputation as a country that does not abandon an ally, however odious. Third, China fears that if the North Korean regime collapses, it will result in millions of North Korean pouring into China seeking refuge and, more ominously, jobs.                                                                                                   


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