WikiLeaks: Curbing Korean chaos

Drawing quickfire conclusions on the basis of leaked cables could lead to an escalation in regional tension.

Taking Wikileaks documents on face value could be dangerous for the Korean peninsula [AFP]

There is a very real danger that some analysts, diplomats, commentators and politicians are taking all that is revealed by Wikileaks at face value, without questioning the veracity of some of the information gleaned from third sources and some of the information transmitted back by US diplomats, believing as they did that they were doing so under the cloak of anonymity.

Take for instance the views of US diplomats who had met with their South Korean counterparts and who had apparently discussed China’s attitude to North Korea.

We learn from Wikileaks that the more sophisticated Chinese foreign policy officials (and there I was thinking that all Chinese foreign policy officials are sophisticated – it goes with the terrain) believed that North Korea was increasingly behaving “like a spoilt child.”

Furthermore, the Chinese had apparently told the South Koreans that their patience was wearing thin, that North Korea was behaving in a belligerent manner and that actually China would prefer to see the two Koreas united under the aegis of Seoul.

That will have been music to the ears not only of the US administration, but many other governments in the West and East Asia.

My own contacts with the Chinese over many years suggest that it is true that their patience has often been sorely tried, and that their influence over North Korea is sometimes exaggerated. 

It is true that many Chinese look at North Korea with a sense of bewilderment. The country seems caught in a permanent time-warp of “cultural revolution,” a phase that long since passed Beijing by.

The Chinese wonder why the North won’t embrace the same mixed market reforms as it has. But here is the rub, China spends 40 per cent of its aid budget on North Korea, and keeps the lights on in that country by donating tens of thousands of tons of heavy fuel oil. In return, China has increasing access to North Korea’s rich raw material base.

The Chinese could of course be tempted by Seoul’s offer to recognise China’s claims over both Tibet and Taiwan. But a more juicy prize would be access to South Korea’s markets through a free trade agreement. This indeed is being offered behind the scenes by the South Koreans, although the Chinese will wonder just how free any trade agreement with the South might turn out to be.

Ever the realists, the Chinese will surely know that whatever the genuine attempts by Seoul to reach out, the idea that South Korea could be ‘dumped on’ by cheap Chinese goods, is pretty unlikely.

The South Koreans would like to prize the Chinese away from North Korea, and given time and market reforms in the North, it is quite possible that China could one day recognise a united Korea – although crucially one where there are no US troops left on the Korean Peninsula.

But again, the South Koreans are themselves more realistic. They believe that their best efforts to woo the Chinese may at least lead to China occasionally suspending its use over the veto when it comes to North Korea at the UN Security Council.

But it is fanciful to suggest as those diplomats did, and on the basis of second had information, that this is a process underway, and that China is set to recognise Seoul’s domination of a united Korea. Here is a case of South Korean diplomats partly deluding themselves, and telling the Americans what they want to hear.

Of one thing we can however be sure, the Wikileaks over North Korea in particular have changed the game plan, perhaps irrevocably. The North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il will be unnerved about what it has learnt about apparent Chinese attitudes, and the regime may either decide to draw in its horns or act in the knowledge that it no longer has anything to lose.

As for the Chinese, they will be utterly appalled by the leaks, and be obliged to make public noises about support for North Korea. The South Koreans and Japan will on the one hand be pleased that a split between China and North Korea has either been contrived – or opened up.

While the US administration must surely be wondering what on earth possessed it to allow such vital information to be passed around to so many people that it leaked out, courtesy we are informed of a twenty two year old Army Corporal.

Really, you couldn’t make it up.

Mark Seddon is a former UN Correspondent for Al Jazeera English TV, and has reported from inside North Korea on several occasions for Al Jazeera, the BBC and The Guardian.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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