Has North Korea Now Crossed China, Too?


Whether restarting work on a nuclear reactor or (allegedly) kidnapping Chinese fishermen, trying to launch a satellite or to import banned tap-dancing shoes from Italy, North Korea continues to draw international attention a month after Kim Jong-un was declared its new leader.

China is North Korea’s closest ally. Yet for many Chinese, exasperated tolerance seems to be turning to anger as reports spread of the abduction last week of 29 Chinese fishermen in the Yellow Sea by unidentified North Koreans, with the kidnappers reported to have demanded payment for their return.

On Thursday, a Chinese-language report on The Southern Metropolis Daily’s Web site said Chinese mafia from the city of Dandong, on the North Korean border, might have been involved in the incident, possibly in cooperation with the North Korean military. So far, the Chinese Foreign Ministry is labeling the incident a “fisheries case” and saying it is “close contact” with its North Korean counterparts, according to Chinese news reports.

Many ordinary Chinese have tended to forgive North Korea’s erratic behavior in recent years, believing that the country should change but also seeing, to some extent, a mirror image of the China of four decades ago. But the abduction reports are stirring ire. A post on the microblogging site Sina Weibo, one of more than 250,000 on the topic, accuses Beijing of soft-pedaling the incident. “North Korean pirates kidnap Chinese fishing boats and lots of Chinese fishermen, isn’t that an attack on Chinese sovereignty?” asked Chuangwgewanren. “To lightly call that a ‘fisheries case’ is heartless for China’s international dignity.”

While the nature of the May 8 incident is unclear, China routinely issues strong protests over comparable altercations when they involve Japanese, South Korean or Philippine fishing vessels.

In recent days, North Korea has drawn attention over other issues, too. It may have resumed construction of a nuclear reactor, the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said, citing satellite imagery of the building site at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, which can be seen here. My colleague Choe Sang-hun’s report is here. Reuters reports that China is “quietly” trying to dissuade North Korea from conducting another nuclear test.

Earlier this week in Myanmar, President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea called on Pyongyang to learn from Myanmar’s moves toward democracy, the Christian Science Monitor reports.

Mr. Lee’s Myanmar trip had particular resonance because it was the first by a South Korean leader since North Korean agents tried, but failed, to assassinate then-President Chun Doo-hwan in the Burmese capital in 1983. The North Koreans did kill 17 other South Koreans, including cabinet ministers, as well as four Burmese.

President Lee promised South Korean assistance if Myanmar ended its military cooperation with Pyongyang. “We want to tell North Korea that it must learn a lesson from Myanmar to cooperate with the international community and receive aid for development,” The Monitor quoted Kim Tae-hyo, South Korea’s senior presidential secretary for national security strategy, as saying.

But the North is famous for its stubbornness, and analysts doubt that message is getting across. The Pyongyang Times in recent days has heaped invective on Mr. Lee, calling him an “unblushing impostor” and “brazen-faced devil,” a “bastard of unclear nationality” and an “unworldly puppy daring to challenge a tiger,” an “eel born in a ditch, lunatic, sub-standard human,” in commentary here.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang is busy evading a United Nations ban on luxury goods prompted by its previous nuclear tests, Reuters reports. Tobacco, cosmetics, luxury cars, watches and computers are getting in, almost all through China, although a recent attempt to import expensive tap-dancing shoes from Italy, price at nearly $200 a pair, was foiled, the report said.

China does not consider the items, which are sought after by North Korea’s growing middle class, to be “luxury” goods, Reuters reported.

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