China’s skepticism may open up new chance to denuclearize North: scholar

SEOUL-- China is increasingly suspicious of North Korea trying to get in the way of China's ascent as a global power and the resulting decay in China-North Korea relations may open unprecedented opportunities to mobilize China's cooperation in denuclearizing the North, a historian said Wednesday.

"Great powers, particularly rising great powers ... what they cannot easily tolerate is friends and allies getting in the way of larger pictures. This is what I think has changed with regard to the relations" between Beijing and Pyongyang, Odd Arne Westad, a Harvard University history professor specialized in Asia, said in a lecture arranged by the Korean Foundation for Advanced Studies.

Traditionally, China has long preferred the status quo on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula, preserving the situation involving North Korea, primarily because of its fears over Korean reunification under the control of the United States and instability that could follow a rapid collapse of the North Korean regime, according to the professor.

But the China-North Korea relations have never been "as bad as they are today and they seem to be getting worse very quickly," the professor noted.

China increasingly deems North Korea trying to get in the way of China's ascendancy rather than being a geographical asset to buffer its borders.

China is also aware North Korea's internal discussion portraying China as an enemy in the North Korean nuclear project, according to the professor.

"This set off alarm bells in Beijing. It also matters increasingly in terms of China's regional and global position. This is where North Korea made a very bad mistake," he said. "(Chinese) party leadership says if we have North Korea treat us badly, why expect the Philippines or Vietnam to treat us with respect?"

Professor Westad also cited North Korea's recent launch of a ballistic missile on the same date China opened its ambitious Belt and Road regional forum on May 14, as well as the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's half brother in Kuala Lumpur, which took place as Beijing and Malaysia held talks to mend their ties earlier in the year.

"Chinese leadership has a rather suspicious mindset and believes that this was done deliberately to undermine larger aspects of China's foreign policy. North Korea should be very careful," he noted.

This does not necessarily mean China will be more cooperative in the international efforts to get rid of North Korea's nuclear weapons, but, "It means more opportunities of working with China than in the past," Westad pointed out.

"This is too good an opportunity not to make use of. For the first time ever in Chinese relations with North Korea, Chinese concerns are primarily linked to ... China's own concerns. If we fail in doing so, challenges next time will be greater," he added.

"It's clear Beijing now sees further, deeper urgency in getting talks started and (wants) that these talks have to center on North Korean nuclear and missile programs ... that the end point will have to be at least a freeze on North Korean nuclear and missile programs with an aim of its abolition, not necessarily to insist on its immediate disarmament," the professor said.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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