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코리아 헤랄드 인터뷰 (2015년 11월 4일): China reassesses value of N.K. as strategic leverage
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The Korea Herald > National > Foreign Affairs > Foreign Policy

China reassesses value of N.K. as strategic leverage

Professor calls China-N.K. ties intricate mixture of love and hatred

Published : 2015-11-03 18:07  Updated : 2015-11-03 18:13
This is the fourth installment in a series of interviews with scholars and experts on China as a resurgent Asian power that is changing the regional order. This installment looks into China’s relations and strategy for dealing with the two Koreas. -- Ed.

China has apparently reevaluated the value of its communist brethren, North Korea, as a source of strategic leverage amid its reemergence as a great power, according to renowned China expert Suh Jin-young.

Suh, professor emeritus at Korea University, also told The Korea Herald that due to the complexities of the love-hate relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang, Seoul’s diplomacy should be “prudent, cautious and sophisticated.”
Suh Jin-young (Song Sang-ho/ The Korea Herald)
"During the Xi Jinping era, China has reevaluated the value of North Korea and showed its intention not to bring its relations with Pyongyang to a catastrophic state,” the scholar said in a recent interview.

“China, of course, feels concerned about the possibility that it could get embroiled in an unnecessary conflict because of the North’s provocative acts. But China can exert some influence in its relations with the U.S. and South Korea due to the North Korean card.”

After several years of diplomatic estrangement, Beijing sent Liu Yunshan, a senior Communist Party official, to attend the 70th anniversary last month of the founding of the North’s Workers Party, setting in motion bilateral efforts to mend their ties.

Touching on the unification of the Korean Peninsula, Suh highlighted the need for creative ways to forge an institutional guarantee that a unified Korea would not undermine the security interests of China, the U.S., Japan and other parties in the region. 

“The then Soviet Union and other parties wanted an institutional guarantee to prevent Germany’s military recrudescence, and they found a solution through the NATO mechanism,” he said. “Korea should also find an institutional guarantee, with which China, the U.S. and others would not, at least, hinder the unification process.”

He raised the possibility that the six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia could be developed into a mechanism to ensure that Korea’s unification would not hamper regional stability.

The following is the interview with Suh.

Korea Herald: What kind of strategic interests would China pursue in its relationship with the Korean Peninsula?
Suh Jin-young
: If you look at the geopolitical aspects of the peninsula, it can be a point where two civilizations can meet and blend as it can serve as a bridge between maritime and continental powers. It can also be a very problematic point where the two civilizations can clash with each other.

From the perspectives of China and Russia, the Korean Peninsula is a gateway to advance into the Pacific, while for the U.S. and Japan, it is a bridgehead to make their way into the Eurasian continent. So there have historically been many clashes on the peninsula and also amalgamations of different civilizations.

One positive case of peninsular geopolitics would be the Italian Peninsula, where the Roman Empire flourished and thrived. I want to look at the destiny of the Korean Peninsula in a positive light. It is not always destined to be a victim of great-power rivalries or conflicts. Should Korea build internal capabilities to blend and manage different civilizations, it could open a new era in the 21st century. 

KH: Have there been differences in China’s foreign policy approach toward the Korean Peninsula after Xi took power some three years ago?
: During the Cold War, the world was divided by the two camps (one led by the U.S. and the other by the Soviet Union). The camps, which were different in terms of ideologies and political systems, were completely separated with China and North Korea maintaining an alliance “forged in blood,” and South Korea and the U.S. having their security alliance.

After China adopted the policy of reform and openness (in 1978), the country’s foreign policy started shifting its focus to pragmatism. In line with this, China sought to forge a normal state-to-state relationship with the North, while trying not to damage the framework of the blood-forged partnership with the North.

During the Hu Jintao era, Beijing tended to feel the considerable burden vis-a-vis Pyongyang. This continues into the Xi Jinping era. But what we should note is that Xi has employed a great-power diplomacy that differentiates his policy from those of Hu and Jiang Zemin. Hu and Jiang held the policy of “taoguang yanghui” -- literally, hide brightness and nourish obscurity. So, China kept a low profile and refrained from revealing itself, while trying to catch up with the U.S.

But after Xi took office, China began raising its voice on the global stage. It has used a great-power diplomacy and risked taut tensions with the U.S. I think that in the midst of the growing geopolitical tensions, China might have started reevaluating the strategic value of North Korea. In the past, China thought of the North as some sort of liability. But during the Xi era, China has reevaluated the value of its communist neighbor and showed its intention not to bring its relations with Pyongyang to a catastrophic state.

China, of course, feels concerned about the possibilities of entrapment, as it could get embroiled in an unnecessary conflict because of the North’s provocative acts. But China, I believe, maintains a long-term vision for the North, and recognizes the North as diplomatic leverage. China can exert some extent of influence in its relations with the U.S. and South Korea due to the North Korean card. That said, China is unlikely to abandon the North.

KH: North Korea and China regard themselves as close allies. But there has also been political distrust. What’s your view?
: China has historically maintained deep relations with several countries including North Korea and Vietnam. China’s feelings toward these are an intricate mixture of love and hatred. The two countries might have had expectations about China, with which they shared ideological and political common grounds in the past. But when they felt betrayed (by China), the psychological scars must have been very deep.

So due to the complexities of the relationship, it would take a considerable amount of time for China and North Korea to overcome their distrust. It is like a couple holding feelings of both love and hatred. One cannot easily dump the other due to the feelings built over long periods of time. So the complexities would last for long, and Seoul should pay attention to how the complexities would affect its diplomacy.

When dealing with the Pyongyang-Beijing relationship, Seoul should take a cautious, prudent and sophisticated approach rather than regarding the bilateral ties just as a normal state-to-state relationship. For instance, if a third person barges in and tells a couple in a verbal fight that the two should go separate ways, how would the couple respond when the fight is over and they restore their feelings of love? 

KH: Would it be safe to say that China and North Korea are on a path toward reconciliation? Last month, China sent Liu Yunshan, the fifth-highest Communist Party official, to attend the North’s military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party on Oct. 10.
: I think the two sides demonstrated their resolve to normalize the chilled relations based on the shared understanding that any further deterioration in their ties would not be in their interests. Compared with the levels of the officials that Beijing sent to Pyongyang in the past, Liu’s position is not that high. I think that by sending him, China reciprocated the visit by Choe Ryong-hae, a secretary of the North’s Workers’ Party, to China’s military parade in September to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

The most crucial issue facing the two nations is Pyongyang’s nuclear development and its provocations against South Korea. China wants the North to promise not to do such things that would put China in a difficult diplomatic position, make China lose face or undermine China’s national interests to a certain extent. The North does not seem to have offered any (positive) response to China’s demands yet. This is the reason why summit diplomacy between the two has not worked out well.

We should wait and see how the two sides entangle the complex web of the bilateral issues and how they would compromise. After its military parade, Pyongyang is likely to review its next steps based on its strategic calculations of potential rewards from the U.S., the South and other parties. The next steps may include its return to the negotiating table, namely the six-party talks. For the talks to resume, concessions on the part of the U.S. and the North are crucial. Ahead of the presidential election in the U.S., the Obama administration may want to make some achievement vis-a-vis the North’s nuclear issue. Thus, the opportunities could possibly emerge for an attempt by either side to seek solutions.

KH: Do you think China is seeking to keep an “equal distance” with the South and the North?
: China wants to normalize its relations with the North, while also pursuing deeper cooperation with the South. China does not necessarily have to choose between the North and South, just as the South does not need to choose between the U.S. and China. Strictly from the perspective of national interests, China wants to keep good ties with both.

This is possible in the international politics of the 21st century, although it was unthinkable during the Cold War. Based on the Cold War-era logic, you would be labeled as a betrayer or opportunist if you sought to be on good terms with both sides in different camps. But from the 21st-century viewpoint, this is only natural. Seoul should also recognize this.

One of the things that I have emphasized when I chaired the committee of South Korean and Chinese scholars is that when South Korea and China think of advancing their relations, they don’t need to be bound or fettered too much by the presence of the U.S. and North Korea. I told Chinese scholars that if they should continue to take issue with the South’s special relations with the U.S., there would be no relations between the South and China, because the strategic relations between the South and China can develop based on the South-U.S. alliance. I told them that if they force the South to choose between China and the U.S., the South can’t maintain its ties with China.

I have also told Seoul officials that they should recognize the special relations between China and the North. I have told them that it is inappropriate for the South to call on China to abandon the North without recognizing their special traditional relationship, when the South keeps its special relations with the U.S. It is like a married woman asking a man to dump his wife while the woman refuses to divorce her own husband. What is appropriate is that both get divorced and start a new married life together. So from China’s perspective, what the South has demanded could be seen as irrational, selfish and narrow-minded.

As a scholar, I know how important the South’s alliance with the U.S. is. So, I tell both sides that they should recognize each other’s special relations with others, and that based on such a recognition, they can develop their bilateral partnership. 

KH: Although we should employ a diplomatic strategy that befits the post-Cold War era, the Cold War mentality seems to still live on.
: That mentality will not vanish overnight. Although the Cold War ended, differences in ideologies and values still exist, thereby allowing the confrontational structure to live on to date. Because of this, it would take a considerable amount of time for South Korea and China to build genuine trust.

The relationship between South Korea and the U.S. has evolved into a value-based alliance, meaning the allies now share basic values. The relationship between South Korea and China is not based on values, but I describe it as a “solidarity of humanities,” which refers to a friendly relationship anchored in historical and cultural common grounds. The value-based alliance does not necessarily have to clash with the solidarity of humanities.

In the world of human psychology, there is a complicated series of layers. The value-based partnership fits into the “rationality layer,” whereas the solidarity of humanities is relevant for the “layer of emotions.” The two are different layers, but both are needed for human beings. We need a sphere for values as well as one for emotions to have a holistic personality. Likewise, for a country’s diplomacy to become complete, it should have both a value-based alliance and a partnership based on humanities. Chinese leader Xi has talked much about neighborhood diplomacy, calling China’s neighbors a “community sharing a common destiny.” That community actually refers to the solidarity of humanities.

KH: What is China’s position about the potential reunification of the Korean Peninsula?
: For the short term, maintaining the status quo on the peninsula would be most favorable to China. If the unification process should be set in motion, China would want a government that is friendly to it, or at least does not antagonize it, to lead the process. But the question is how we can guarantee it.

If you look at the case involving Germany, the German military was incorporated into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to make it difficult to use its force in an unbridled manner. The then Soviet Union and other parties wanted the institutional guarantee to prevent Germany’s military recrudescence, and they found a solution through the NATO mechanism.

Korea should also find an institutional guarantee to ensure that a unified Korea would not pose any threat to China, the U.S. or Japan. With the guarantee, China, Japan and other parties would not oppose or impede the peninsular unification. In Korea, there have not been any serious discussions yet about the institutional framework to facilitate the unification process. I think the six-party talks could be developed into an institutional foundation. I hope scholars can put forward creative ways regarding the institutional guarantee, without which China, the U.S. and Japan would not be thoroughly assured that a unified Korea would remain friendly to them.

KH: What do you suggest for Seoul’s diplomacy amid the intensifying Sino-U.S. rivalry?
: In international politics, there are largely three ways for a country to respond to great-power politics. One is “bandwagoning,” which is allying with a great power, just the way South Korea and Japan have done. Another is “challenging” as China challenged the Soviet Union and the U.S. during the era of Mao Zedong. North Korea has also challenged the U.S. The other is “balancing,” which is what the 19th-century Britain did.

If you want to become a balancer, you should have sufficient influence that would tip the scale in favor of one of the major powers. But without adequate influence, you can’t be a balancer as nobody would look at you importantly if you can’t play a balancing role in the great-power relations. In the 21st world politics, all three -- bandwagoning, challenging and balancing -- do not seem to be suitable for South Korea.

Thus, I thought of the concept of the “bridging diplomacy,” which I also call a “diplomacy of real estate agency.” If you want to play the role of a real estate agent between the two major powers, you need to meet two requirements. One is trust. You should build the reputation as a reliable real estate agent who can lead any bargaining between the major powers toward a “win-win” outcome. To this end, you need to have capabilities to gather intelligence and employ a “smart diplomacy.” The bridging diplomacy is easier said than done.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)

*Suh Jin-young

● Suh, head of the private Institute of Social Sciences, is known for more than four decades of extensive research on China’s history, politics and foreign policy, and a large number of his books and reports on these subjects.

● He has taught political science at Korea University for more than three decades since 1980. He also headed the state-funded Korea-China Committee dedicated to fostering the two nations’ strategic cooperation.

● Among his popular books are “Chinese Politics in the 21st Century” (2008), “China’s Foreign Policy in the 21st Century” (2006), “A History of Chinese Revolution” (2002) and “International Relations and Political Changes in the Post-Cold War Northeast Asia” (2003).

● Suh earned his bachelor’s degree in political science at Korea University in 1965. He obtained his master’s degree and a doctorate in political science at University of Washington in 1971 and 1980, respectively.
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