ILC2021-8 Session 5 - Presentation of  Mr. Torbjørn Færøvik

In the Chinese Forbidden City, Korea has been a source of concern for centuries. Koreans have often tended to go their own ways without asking others for permission.

In 1950, North Korea started a war which in a sense is still going on. There is no peace agreement in sight, nor any reunification of the two Korean states. Why is it so difficult? There are many explanations for this. One is that China has lacked the political and military strength to impose its will. If the Chinese had tried, there would have been a new Korean war with heavy losses and an uncertain outcome.

Another reason is Beijing’s lack of trust in their Korean comrades. The style of politics in North Korea has by and large been more dogmatic than China’s and, unlike China, the country is virtually closed to outsiders. The present leader in the North does not have a high standing in Beijing, and in social settings he is often the subject of funny jokes and loud laughter.

For some time after the Korean War, North Korea did better than its neighbor in the south. But then, in the 1960’s, South Korea’s economy gained speed.

After Chairman Mao's death in 1976, China was forced to look at the Korean problem with new eyes. It was all too clear that South Korea achieved economic success, while North Korea was a failure. After several years of cautious warming up, the breakthrough between Beijing and Seoul came in 1992. That year, the two countries established normal diplomatic relations.

Since then, trade between the two has risen year after year. Today, China is South Korea's most important trading partner. And even though political problems arise from time to time, it seems that Beijing is willing to let trade run its course.

There is no doubt that the Chinese leaders are impressed by South Korea's economic success. As a sign that the Chinese leadership is placing great emphasis on relations with South Korea, President Xi visited Seoul as early as 2014, and a new visit is likely to take place soon.

It is worth noting that President Xi has not shown North Korea the same attention. His only visit so far took place two years ago.

Although President Xi and Kim Jong Un spoke highly of each other and toasted eternal friendship, it seems obvious that China's relations with North Korea are essentially dictated by military considerations, geopolitics and duty. Yes, duty. The DPRK, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, was born thanks to China. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese fell on the Korean battlefield. One of them was Mao Anying, the eldest son of Chairman Mao. Therefore, there are strong emotional ties between China and North Korea.

Keeping North Korea afloat is in many ways a big burden for Beijing, but the Chinese leaders feel they have no choice. Xi and his colleagues hardly dare to imagine what might happen if North Korea collapses. In the worst case, millions of people will flee, most of them to South Korea, others to China. A complete collapse of North Korea would be a serious defeat for China, even more painful than the US defeats in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

A North Korean collapse could also pave the way for a unified country leaning towards the US and the Western world. There are so many uncertain factors here, and Beijing’s cautious men are not likely to take chances in a game like this.

It goes without saying that China wants a peaceful solution in Korea, but Xi is in no hurry. The most important thing for him in this phase is to keep North Korea's economy alive, to slow down or at best to halt the country’s nuclear program, and to moderate Kim Jong Un and his close colleagues.

There is, as you know, no Korean dialogue at present. The six-party talks which began 18 years ago ended after six years, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Relations between China and the US seem to be going from bad to worse, and without their active participation there will be no movement in the right direction.

In the last two decades, China has become a far stronger player in the international arena. The country's economy is said to be the second largest in the world, and its military capacity has become significantly stronger.

Although this may be good for China, it has caused anxiety and insecurity in many countries, especially in Asia and in the West. According to a recent survey by Pew Research Center, 76 percent of respondents in the US say they have a negative view of China. In South Korea the percentage is 77 percent and in Japan as high as 88 percent.

These figures can be explained by China's failed international diplomacy in recent years. President Xi and his men are perceived by many as arrogant and unwilling to compromise on important issues. China's behavior in the South China Sea is just one example. This deplorable development does not make it easier to establish a meaningful dialogue on Korea.

At some point, I think China will have to adjust its course to reduce tensions in Korea, in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

Thank you for your kind attention.


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