There are surprising noises coming from China these days about North Korea. One influential Chinese academic thinks China's policy -- long supportive of the hermit kingdom -- might be changing.
The government has been pretty careful about what it has said and what is done. But the tone from China's scholars has changed significantly from a few years back when they would eschew on-the-record quotes for anything that was even mildly controversial. That means something; I don't know exactly what but it might be a sign of change.
Case in point is Zhu Feng's recent piece. Zhu is a political heavyweight. He's the deputy director of the Center for International & Strategic Studies at Peking Univesity.
Zhu basically argues that 1) North Korea's claim that it carried out two nuclear tests because the UN Security Council criticized it for its sat/missile test is bogus. He cites "Chinese experts" who tell him that North Korea would have needed six months to prepare a test. That means, Zhu said, that North Korea planned to undertake these tests all along.
This leads Zhu to a pretty significant, and I'd argue newsworthy, conclusion about China's role in all this. China, he said, had always believed that North Korea's nuclear program was negotiable. That Pyongyang might be willing to give up its nukes as long as its economic and security interests could be met. Now, Zhu writes, all the evidence "points in the opposite direction. In fact, the recent nuclear test by the DPRK is not just a slap in the face of China, but a sobering wake-up call for the Chinese leadership to face up to the malignant nature of their North Korean counterparts."
And then the kicker, which gets into the argument I made in a previous post:
China, Zhu said, has tried to juggle its twin concerns about North Korea -- de-nuclearization and preventing instability of the Kim Jong-il regime. But, he writes, once North Korea clarified that it had no intention to give up its nuclear weapons and instead upped the nuclear ante by escalating military tension on the Korean Peninsula, "Beijing's longstanding and delicately balanced policy toward Pyongyang became a casualty of the second nuclear test from its neighbor of the North."
So what is China going to do? Zhu thinks China's policy could change. "The reason is simple: the DPRK's possession of nuclear weapons was not scary as long as it was believed to be temporary and could be eventually eliminated. North Korea's secretive conspiracy to become a de jure nuclear power, however, has recklessly crossed Beijing's 'bottom line.'" Zhu points out that Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie joined the international community on May 27 to decry North Korea's nuclear test. The PLA has historically been the biggest friend of the Kim Dynasty.
"This is a significant sign," Zhu writes, "that China's policy toward the North might shift."
And with a veritable toddler -- Kim Jong-un, the 25-year-old son of Kim Jong-il's third wife Ko Yong-hee (d. 2004) -- being readied for Lil Kim's throne, Beijing might have an opportunity. Stay tuned.