China's Dangerous and Despotic Ally


By Mark Clifford It's summer in Beijing. The long days and languid evenings make this a favorite season for visitors to the Middle Kingdom. And in this increasingly sophisticated and cosmopolitan capital, it's sometimes easy to forget the nature of Beijing's rulers.

Not this summer, however. A jittery government is upping the stakes in a deadly diplomatic game, as growing numbers of desperate North Korean refugees try to reach the safety of foreign consulates in the city's embassy district. The Chinese, eager to avoid offending ally North Korea, are intent on keeping these refugees from reaching sanctuary. And the drama provides a grim reminder that when trouble brews, Chinese rulers think nothing of responding with clubs, barbed wire, and phalanxes of armed policemen.

FORMAL PROTEST. Something significant is happening here this summer, even if the world doesn't fully realize it yet. On top of disaffected peasant farmers and angry domestic workers, China now has to deal with a growing North Korean refugee crisis. Nineteen North Koreans have been granted shelter in South Korea's Beijing embassy. It would have been 20, except that Chinese authorities recently entered the embassy and removed a 56-year-old North Korean who had been inside with his son.

Press reports say the invasion turned into a scrum, with Chinese police beating a South Korean embassy employee as well as a local Chinese woman who worked at the legation. Seoul filed a formal protest with the Chinese ambassador in Korea -- an action it usually tries to avoid.

The refugee flight is bound to grow. As many as 150,000 North Koreans are in China illegally. You can bet that hundreds more are likely to seek asylum as summer unfolds.

HUNGRY MASSES. The problem is simple: China's longtime ally is starving its people. Korea's "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il, remains unwilling to open his country up to more economic development. One of the most ruthless leaders that the world has seen, Kim is content to let a steady drip of food aid keep his country from withering of starvation. But Kim has spurned foreign investment that would give Pyongyang hard currency to banish the hunger that ravages North Korea, for fear that his regime would be overthrown.

Small wonder that North Koreans are fleeing their country. The only place they can go -- other than try to cross the heavily guarded demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, which has proven impossible to breach, or escape by boat -- is across the North Korean border with China.

Beijing doesn't want to anger North Korea, so it's doing everything it can to keep would-be asylum seekers from reaching the safety of foreign embassies and consulates. And yet, every time it acts, it reminds the world that this is no freedom-loving, free-wheeling democracy.

BIG RISK, SLIM REWARD. Last month, Chinese soldiers entered the Japanese consulate in Shenyang and dragged a woman out. Such actions violate international treaties, Western diplomats say. But China's traditional response is to ignore international conventions and crack down hard. Granted, this isn't the China of 20 or even 10 years ago, the eras of Maoist "reeducation camps" and brutal crackdowns like the Tiananmen Square massacre. Thanks to some brave nongovernment officials, and the courage of the asylum seekers themselves, the video and pictures of Chinese crackdowns are now beamed around the world. And they're embarrassing to China.

Here's a simple question for Beijing: Why behave this way? Why risk international censure for the sake of Kim Jong Il? Sure, Chinese leaders like to say China and North Korea are as close as "lips and teeth." The People's Liberation Army saved North Korea when U.S. General Douglas MacArthur pushed to the Yalu River, intent on unifying the Korean peninsula under American suzerainty. And stable borders with reliable partners are a long-cherished foreign-policy objective.

North Korea is trouble, and the whole world knows it. If Beijing really wants peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, it should start letting the refugees enjoy asylum, in China or in another country. My advice to Beijing: Don't be a partner any longer in the killing fields that Kim Jong Il is sowing across the peninsula.

COSTLY FRIEND. You represent a proud country, one that aspires to be a superpower. In recent years, you have shown the world a powerful model for economic development. Some 200 million Chinese -- 10 times the population of North Korea -- have been lifted out of poverty since your economic reforms began nearly a quarter of a century ago. So why let minnow-size North Korea cause you more international grief?

After all, you can't be faulted for not trying to bring North Korea into the modern world. You have twice in recent years hosted Kim Jong Il in China, hoping that he would take a leaf out of your book and adopt economic reforms. The Dear Leader marveled at your computer factories, at your skyscrapers, and at the vast numbers of ordinary people using mobile phones. Yet he went back home and changed nothing.

American diplomats have always doubted Beijing's claim that it doesn't have much influence over Pyongyang. If that's true, that your influence is so limited, why do you insist on doing North Korea's dirty work by dragging its citizens out of embassies and consulates? Keep sending the North fuel and food. But don't sentence its people to death by sending them back to a country that's little more than one big gulag.

MAOIST MADNESS. North Korea is a drag on the progress you have made away from a past you're rapidly leaving behind. Dear Leader's starvation agriculture polices, his mass-mobilization construction projects, his weary people tramping the country in a constant search for food, are a ghostly shadow of the worst excesses and madness of the Maoist era.

Socialist solidarity for old time's sake is backward thinking. A little more Chinese pragmatism would be a step forward. It's time to join the 21st century. Hong Kong-based Asia Regional Editor Clifford lived in Seoul from 1987-1992 and visited North Korea in 2000. He is the author of Troubled Tiger: Businessmen, Bureaucrats and Generals in South Korea (M.E. Sharpe, 1994).


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