Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi is expected to visit Seoul next week, three months after he canceled a visit here last November. Three days before Yang’s scheduled arrival here on Nov. 26, North Korea made an artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in one of the worst provocations since the Korean War, killing two Marines and two civilians and destroying many homes in the fishing and farming community. No specific reason was given for the cancellation of the ministerial visit.
Beijing instead sent State Councilor Dai Bingguo to Seoul on Nov. 27. On his call on President Lee Myung-bak, Dai, a former vice foreign minister who is known as the party’s top diplomatic policy maker, did not directly mention the Yeonpyeong incident but spent much of the time reviewing the historical relations between the two neighboring countries. While Dai was still in Seoul, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced its plan to invite the five participants of the six-party talks to a conference on reducing tension on the Korean Peninsula. That multilateral meeting did not materialize and the original six-party denuclearization talks have not resumed yet.
China’s diplomatic ambivalence toward the two Koreas continued throughout 2010, which also witnessed North Korea’s torpedoing of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan that left 46 sailors dead. The permanent member of the U.N. Security Council opposed directly condemning North Korea for the inhuman attack in March and again prevented the UNSC from issuing a president’s statement on the Yeonpyeong incident. Beijing spokespersons only repeatedly asked “concerned parties to exercise calm and restraint” and emphasized the importance of the six-party talks.
Seoul officials should be ready to hear similar remarks from the Chinese foreign minister but they at least hope Beijing will distinguish between black and white and take a little more initiative, using its substantial economic and political leverage on North Korea to make it behave more responsibly. Regarding nuclear proliferation, China can no longer stay nonchalantly now that North Korea has announced progress in its uranium enrichment program.