Beijing and Seoul Enable Pyongyang's Brutality

Beijing and Seoul Enable Pyongyang’s Brutality
By James Zumwalt
SUMMARY: South Korea is sending China the wrong signals following North Korea’s sinking of the warship Cheonan.

The photograph of an emotional mother kneeling at the grave of her Navy son underscored the sacrifices this past Memorial Day weekend made by those in uniform. While the photograph was taken in South Korea, the sacrifice of a son and loss by a mother were no less than what American sons and mothers are suffering in the two wars we fight today.

The Korean mother was mourning the loss of a son who died, with 45 others, on March 26. All were crewmembers onboard the warship Cheonan, broken in half by an explosion just beneath her keel during a routine patrol near a disputed border with North Korea. An international team of experts investigating the incident examined the two salvaged halves of the ship, acoustics data and recovered remnants of a Yu-3 torpedo. They determined a North Korean submarine had launched the underwater strike.

As to what action will be taken against North Korea for this cowardly act, China is a key player. For decades, it has been a big brother protector, blind to the evil doings of its bullying little North Korean brother whenever Pyongyang stood accused of such deeds.

Transgression after transgression by the North has been repeatedly downplayed by China. Its efforts to protect Pyongyang have included watering down UN Security Council sanctions designed to extract some form of punishment. Meanwhile, South Korea, the frequent target of these transgressions, has repeatedly adopted a "turn-the-other-cheek" attitude in holding the North accountable.

The sinking of Cheonan puts both South Korea and China in the position of having to demonstrate how committed each is to reeling in a rogue North Korea. China will try to buy Pyongyang more time in hopes international calls for action against the North will eventually subside. It already has set a delaying tone. Its first official statement after the sinking came almost eight weeks later—only after the investigation’s report was issued.

Describing Cheonan’s loss as "unfortunate," Beijing failed to acknowledge that Pyongyang was responsible for the action, nor did it indicate acceptance of the investigation’s findings. Throwing Seoul a bone, China did say it would not defend anyone responsible for the sinking. In this manner, Beijing leaves itself wiggle room, once again, as it defends its unruly little brother by questioning the team’s findings. Such delay achieves China’s objective of maintaining the status quo on the Korean peninsula—even as Pyongyang now makes the outrageous claim the sinking was “faked” by the South.

Clearly, China will be hard-pressed to explain the Chinese-made Yu-3 torpedo remnants found within Cheonan’s debris field on the sea floor. If honesty were a Chinese government trait, officials would acknowledge North Korea committed this crime by launching one of the Yu-3 torpedoes they had sold the "hermit kingdom." But China will continue to cast doubt upon the findings and North Korean duplicity as long as possible.

Seoul has already made the decision not to conduct a retaliatory military strike against the North. Instead, it will rely on a toothless UN Security Council resolution to punish Pyongyang. It is China’s presence on the Security Council that has rendered past resolutions aimed at taking action against the North toothless. Thus, South Korean diplomacy now needs to focus on pressuring Beijing to act more responsibly to curtail North Korea’s irresponsibility.

China is not only Pyongyang’s main ally, it is Pyongyang’s main economic partner. It is China’s economic lifeline that keeps North Korea’s economy on life support. Beijing understands severing that tie endangers the regional stability it seeks to maintain. Such instability will trigger a flow of refugees from a country incapable of feeding its own people who will then stream over into China. Thus, China will do all it can to avoid having to indict North Korea for Cheonan’s loss.

No amount of pressure exerted by Seoul against Beijing to issue a North Korean indictment, will work unless South Korea adopts a policy demonstrating its own firm commitment to finally rein Pyongyang in. Seoul still has failed to do that.

In late May, North Korea—trying to act the role of the victim for being accused of sinking Cheonan—announced it was severing relations with the South, after the South imposed various restrictions on the North. But neither side has taken action to shut down the Kaesong industrial complex located in the North.

In this factory park, for six years, more than 40,000 North Koreans have worked for South Korean companies. It is an arrangement that has provided the South with cheap labor and the North with billions of dollars in cash. While the North cannot afford to terminate the relationship, it appears the South does not consider the Cheonan incident sufficiently serious to terminate it either. Incredulously, South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan justified this on May 28 announcing, “We do not want to spoil a good kind of showcase for North-South economic cooperation.”

For a decade during South Korea’s failed “Sunshine Policy” of appeasement adopted by two previous presidents, billions of dollars went North, some supposedly as economic aid but most clearly paid as tribute to buy peace on the peninsula. The funds were used by Pyongyang to build its military might and nuclear arms program—and to acquire Yu-3 torpedoes. In essence, the South’s financial contribution to the North has provided Seoul the rope with which to hang itself. The cashflow northward must now stop.

South Korea and China are both guilty of enabling North Korea’s aggressive behavior over the years. But China will never feel pressure to abandon its role as an enabler unless Seoul abandons its own role in this capacity. By continuing to do business as usual with Pyongyang in refusing to shut down the Kaesong industrial park, Seoul sends Beijing the wrong signal as to the seriousness of the North’s latest transgression. China, therefore, will continue to shield its brutal little brother from punishment.   

Forty-six mothers lost sons onboard Cheonan as a result of Pyongyang’s latest act of terrorism. How many more must senselessly die before Seoul fully appreciates the sacrifice necessary to finally stop China’s brutal little brother?