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China’s Litmus Test: Stability or Status Quo on the Korean Peninsula?

by Scott A. Snyder
May 28, 2010

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jo Yong hak

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s formal announcement of a robust set of countermeasures against North Korea in response to the sinking of the Cheonan have stimulated an interesting debate over whether Lee Myung-bak is seeking regime change or changed behavior from the North Korean leadership. I argue over at YaleGlobal Online that Lee wants the Cheonan to be a turning point in the inter-Korean relationship, but in addition to support from the United States, South Korea needs China to prioritize stability over the status quo if Lee’s strategy is to be successful.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s meetings in Seoul this week underscore remarkably close cooperation between Washington and Seoul, a result by all accounts of the U.S. view that President Lee has handled the crisis thus far with a level of coolness and maturity that is deserving of unswerving support. The Cheonan issue also appears to have been good for Clinton’s visit to Tokyo, providing an issue on which Prime Minister Hatoyama could declare his unwavering cooperation that goes beyond Futenma.

As Victor Cha has laid out in Chosun Ilbo, it is striking how wrong-footed China’s response to the Cheonan case has been, especially in light of South Korea’s economic and political importance to China compared to North Korea (as illustrated below and in my book on China’s Rise and the Two Koreas).

China-ROK and China-DPRK Trade since 1982

National Bureau of Statistics of China

Premier Wen Jiabao’s current visit to Seoul for meetings with Lee and Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama at “Plus Three” meetings in Jeju Island will provide the first opportunity for China to make adjustments, although the real challenges are yet to come at the UN Security Council, where China’s handling of both Iran and North Korea will draw international judgments regarding the quality of China’s leadership on the international stage.

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  • Posted by Sharon

    Is China’s reaction to the event really that striking? If the US were in China’s position, I think it would react in the same way. North Korea is not a rational state, and won’t respond rationally to the sanctions the US wants China to impose; rather, it will speed up its demise. Perhaps China is right: threatening to cut off North Korea won’t change its behavior, but might just cause it to implode. And that would be worse for everyone else.

    Hopefully Kim Jong-il’s son is a little more sane than he is and this situation can finally be solved peacefully.

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