by SOJUNG PARK

South Korea pulled out its last remaining workers from the Kaesong Industrial Complex on May 3, putting the only existing symbol of inter-Korean cooperation in jeopardy. To diffuse tensions, some have called on Seoul to send a diplomatic envoy to North Korea, but others have proposed the restoration of the United States’ strategic nuclear weapons on the peninsula, further alienating Pyongyang. Reconciliation, however, is a distant possibility, and Seoul will have to resort to subtler ways of bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table.

One way would be to engage the Chinese public, as proposed by the column published on the April 10th issue of JoongAng Ilbo. Yoo Sang-cheol, the author of the column and a reporter specializing in Chinese affairs, says North Korea has always been wary of popular Chinese opinions. In August 2004, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il cancelled his visit to Beijing, apparently offended by a Strategy and Management article berating the North for being an “ungrateful neighbor who puts China in a difficult position through its selfish behaviors.” Shortly thereafter, Beijing shut down the decade-old Chinese magazine for spoiling the trip, which had been planned for discussions on resuming the six-party talks, or negotiations aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear program. In July 2009, Shanghai Media Group was allegedly handed a heavy punishment for airing a documentary mocking the North’s inability to treat “even the simplest condition as a cataract.” And in February this year, Deng Yuwen (鄧聿文), former vice chief editor of China’s Study Times, was forced to step down after writing an op-ed on the Financial Times calling on Beijing to “give up on North Korea.”

Pyongyang seems a likely mastermind behind these cases, as China has less reasons to take such measures than the North does. It’s unclear, though, how Pyongyang may have orchestrated all this. But North Korea’s insecurity — often manifest in the form of paranoiac belligerence — is a well-known fact.

The real question is what North Korea has to fear. According to Yoo, the answer is that Pyongyang is aware of the growing influence the Chinese people have over their government. Unlike previous leaders like Mao and Deng, China’s recent regimes lack the legitimacy and charisma the Communist party once had, rendering themselves more vulnerable to the public’s whims. Former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, for instance, cancelled his 2008 summit with then French President Nicolas Sarkozy after the Chinese public was enraged by this call for a “true dialogue” with Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of China’s longtime menace Tibet. Though press freedom in China has yet to reach the first-world standard, it is a matter of time until opinions will flow freely across the nation.

An army of political pundits have recently speculated that China may be abandoning North Korea soon, following Pyongyang’s torrent of hostile remarks and maneuvers. But given these assumptions are based on scant remarks by Chinese officials, it is too early to tell whether this will be the case.

What is becoming clear, though, is that Chinese people turning against North Korea will be a nightmare scenario for Pyongyang. But rather than exploiting this weakness, South Korea should use it as a leverage to boost media diplomacy with China, eventually engaging the Chinese public into the process of unification.

 

Sojung Park is a Seoul-based journalist passionate about North Korea affairs. She first cultivated her interest in East Asia through a childhood infatuation with Japanese culture, which culminated in a one-year study abroad at Waseda University and an internship at a Tokyo-based humanitarian NGO. She currently works with North Korean defectors in Seoul, teaching them English to help them succeed at South Korean universities. A close follower of defector-run media, she strives to write about developments unfolding in North Korean society. All views expressed here are her own and do not reflect those of her employer.
 
Follow her on Twitter: @sojungko.
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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 29 post(s) on Asia Security Watch