By Ben Blanchard and Sui-Lee Wee, Reuters
BEIJING — Six months ago China’s state media was lauding North Korea as a great place to invest as both countries tried to promote a cross-border economic zone. One nuclear test, a long-range rocket launch and much saber-rattling later and China is a central player in new U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang, something Chinese experts say marks a major shift in Beijing’s policy toward its impoverished neighbor.
At the same time, Chinese newspapers have been calling North Korea an ungrateful and unreliable liability. Businessmen and officials charged with building commercial ties don’t even want to talk about the country.
No one is suggesting China will abandon the regime of leader Kim Jong Un or even implement the new sanctions to the letter, but a relationship once regarded “as close as lips and teeth” is on thin ice as China’s frustration grows. “I think it’s remarkable and identifiable, the change in China’s policy towards the Korean peninsula,” said Zhu Feng, director of the International Security Program at the elite Peking University. Zhu said China was now putting its hopes on diplomatic coercion to get North Korea to change its behavior. “Beijing has ultimately woken up to reality … At the U.N. Security Council, Beijing very noticeably shifted to a harder policy to get North Korea very badly hurt.”
China has backed previous sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. China also officially says it does not believe sanctions will resolve the latest crisis over North Korea, a position repeated by Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on Saturday.
But after North Korea’s third nuclear test, on Feb. 12, China negotiated the new sanctions with Washington and said it wanted them implemented fully. The measures, announced on Thursday, tighten financial curbs on North Korea, order mandatory checks of suspicious cargo and strengthen a ban on luxury goods entering the country.
An exasperated China appears to have run out of patience after years of trying to coax Pyongyang out of isolation and to embrace economic reform. To top it off, Kim Jong Un has failed to pay fealty to China, his country’s only major ally, as his father and grandfather did. He has not visited China since taking over when his father Kim Jong Il died at the end of 2011.
Even the modicum of affection Chinese used to feel towards North Koreans, brothers-in-arms during the 1950-53 Korean War, has all but vanished, the country and its leader becoming an object of derision and incomprehension, especially as China powers ahead economically and rises in global stature. The Global Times, an influential tabloid published by Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, has called for China to cut North Korea off completely. It warned on Friday that Pyongyang should not underestimate China’s anger. “The ‘friendship’ between China and North Korea … obviously cannot be decided by Pyongyang’s temper,” the widely read newspaper wrote in an editorial. How Quickly Things Change Back in August, an editorial by a Chinese Commerce Ministry official in the People’s Daily said China needed to encourage and support its companies to invest in North Korea. The China Daily cited another official as praising North Korea’s growth prospects.
At this month’s annual meeting of China’s largely rubber stamp parliament, Chinese with North Korea links wanted to talk about anything but North Korea. A question from a Reuters reporter at a news conference by officials from Jilin province, which borders North Korea and does a lot of business with the country including trying to develop the Rason economic zone, caused consternation. Asked if the central government had ordered Jilin to reduce trade and investment with North Korea in the wake of the Feb. 12 nuclear test, officials looked flustered and finally asked a low-ranking bureaucrat to answer.