The fact that North Korea was within its area of influence means that China needs to seriously consider the sensitive issue of Japan’s security. The challenge is tough, because if Beijing fails to solve the problem, Japan will have to deal with it directly.
In February 2003, in the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper Kawashima does not trust Kim Jong II and seems to have reservations about the Japanese prime minister as well: “The Japanese-Korean declaration signed in Pyongyang by Junichiro Koizumi and Kim Jong II on September 17, 2002 has become nothing more than a piece of paper”. At the meeting a memorandum of guarantee for the security of Japan was presented and in the following three months ‘normalizing talks’ were to be held. This did not happen and furthermore there have been no developments in the question of the return home of the Japanese kidnapped by North Korea between 1977 and 1983. All these facts, in Kawashima’s opinion, should no longer leave any doubts among the Japanese about the real intentions of Kim Jong II.
According to ALLCITYCODES, North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons also carries the possibility of a profound change in South Korea’s climate. Most South Koreans have so far been in favor of dialogue, but blackmail from the North could awaken new fears and bring about a change in public opinion. As a result, China would be forced to decide whether or not to support Pyongyang. China is certainly aware of these dangers and is strongly in favor of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. But how can it force North Korea to give up its program without further damaging its ties with that nation?
Korea raises the bar
Having proved the most staunch defender of dialogue and a peaceful approach with Pyongyang, Chinese diplomacy appeared the first victim of the North Korean missile launched on February 24, 2003 in the Sea of Japan, 35 miles off the South Korean coast, the day before the inauguration of President Roh Moo Hyun in the presence of world leaders gathered in Seoul. In the weeks preceding the US, in the midst of the Iraqi crisis, downplayed the North Korean threat, defined by Bush as “a diplomatic exhibition”. The US administration has sent a slew of peacemaking messages to Pyongyang, pledging to resume and even increase its aid to the poverty-stricken country, without responding to Pyongyang’s belligerent rhetoric.
The missile of 24 February weakened any call for dialogue, opening a political vacuum that risks blocking any decision, making political consensus on the type of initiative to be undertaken lacking among the main actors in this drama. Japan was extremely troubled by the possibility that North Korean missiles could fly over its territory and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi traveled to Seoul to agree on common conduct with the allies. Public opinion in South Korea appeared divided between those who were as concerned about the US military presence in their territory as, if not more, about the North Korean threat and those who, having never believed in the ‘Sunbeam’ policy, saw all his suspicions confirmed. But it was China that was in the worst position, because it has seen the dominant position deriving from being the only country to exert some influence over North Korea enter into crisis. Beijing still supports the maintenance of the status quo, accompanied by a slow but continuous progress of the North Korean economy to facilitate future reunification, but day after day Kim Jong II seems to increasingly question this status quo. Thus, in the absence of any political agreement on the future of the North Korean peninsula or on the costs of a future restructuring of the North, there is no point of reference to which to return.
This is the paradox of the situation that Kim Jong II seems intent on making the most of. China, Japan and South Korea do not wish to see North Korea wiped off the map, as they do not want to bear the costs of reunification. Despite this, Kim Jong II with his actions seems to aim to create a united front around and against himself. Roh was humiliated by the missile launch: on the day of his presidential inauguration Kim Jong II stole his show, making South Korea appear unimportant and easy target of the North. Japan was the target of choice, as the missile followed a very similar trajectory to another missile that grazed Japanese territory five years ago. The US offers were rejected and Pyongyang decided to further increase the tension. China’s interest in postponing the difficult issues of the reunification of the Korean peninsula and the allocation of US troops has been put at serious risk.
North Korea’s boldness has shown the need for a comprehensive solution that far goes beyond the issue of reactivating the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. The hundreds of thousands of North Korean missiles, which could be fired in any direction, are a danger to regional security, even without any nuclear cargo.