WikiLeaks disclosures will only deepen the crisis on the Korean peninsula

Is it responsible to disclose a nation’s secret diplomatic communications? Following yesterday’s extraordinary revelations of backroom deals, government-level gossip and the breaking of UN rules by American officials, it would be difficult to argue that the disclosures are not in the public interest.

The proper functioning of a democracy is contingent upon transparency and accountability, and as the world’s foremost champion of democracy, the US should be held to account when it is engaged in dodgy diplomatic practices around the world. But in light of today’s headlines on China’s growing frustration with North Korea, questions about the wisdom and responsibility of the leaks have been brought into sharp focus.

As US and South Korean naval forces continue their joint military exercises in the Yellow Sea in response to the North’s artillery attack last week, the disclosure of such classified diplomatic exchanges risks inflaming an already dangerously volatile situation.

The Guardian today ran the sensational front-page headline, ‘WikiLeaks cables reveal China “ready to abandon North Korea.”’ (Curiously, the quote is not repeated in the article, so one can only assume that it was a conclusion reached by the author and put in quotation marks to inflate the gravity of the story. The quote has now been repeated across countless media networks around the world).

What emerges from the relevant cables is, to be sure, a fascinating insight into the increasingly high-level dispute in Beijing about the future of its North Korea policy. But it does not suggest, as the headlines imply, that the Chinese leadership is about to reverse its North Korea policy.

In the documents, South Korea’s vice-foreign minister is quoted as saying he was told by two named senior Chinese officials that they believed Korea should be reunified under Seoul’s control, and a figure from an international agency says that Chinese officials believe they could absorb 300,000 North Korean refugees in the event of a crisis. Following Pyongyang’s missile tests in April 2009, China’s vice-foreign minister apparently told American diplomats that North Korea was behaving like a ‘spoilt child.’

For most North Korea observers, the fact that many in the Chinese leadership are irate with Pyongyang is about as unsurprising as the revelation that Sarah Palin gets North and South Korea muddled up. China responded punitively to North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, unilaterally cutting off oil supplies for several days, and then for the first time joining in international condemnation and UN sanctions.

Harsher sanctions followed in May 2009, following the second nuclear test. As North Korea’s behaviour has become more unruly, and Beijing’s efforts to encourage Pyongyang down a path of Chinese-style ‘opening up’ have failed, the alliance has become increasingly strained. Of course China has considered the ramifications of a collapse, given the state of the North Korean economy and the leadership transition that is currently playing out.

What is extraordinary is that senior Chinese officials have spoken so openly about the possibility of reunification with their South Korean and American counterparts. Again, however, this does not indicate an imminent shift in national policy.

Should these exchanges be for public consumption? An editorial in the Guardian today claims that the revelations, if read in Pyongyang, will ‘instil realism into a regime that so clearly lacks it.’ Unnamed Chinese diplomats today responded to the leaks by saying that China supports the ‘independent and peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula.’ There could, however, be two alternative repercussions, both of which would serve to further destabilise the region.  

First, a humiliated and aggrieved North Korea might determine that it has little option but to up the brinkmanship through further military provocations, during what is already a deeply unstable period in its relationship with Seoul and Washington. In this regard, the timing of the disclosures must be called into question. Despite what its behaviour often suggests, Pyongyang is hugely concerned about its international image and will find the public reporting of China’s misgivings deeply humiliating.

Second, the disclosures make the task of resolving the current crisis profoundly more difficult for the Obama administration. A return to the Six-Party Talks was already perceived in Washington to be an option that would look dangerously weak and conciliatory. If China is now to be portrayed as being ‘ready to abandon’ the North, then any agreement the US can eventually come to with Pyongyang will look like a complete capitulation to North Korean demands. ‘Why not just nudge Beijing to abandon North Korea?’

Given the highly unstable moment at which these documents have been released, one would expect a little more restraint on the part of those reporting on them. It is difficult, given the chilling circumstances unfolding on the Korean peninsula, not to have deep misgivings about the wisdom of publishing such highly sensitive diplomatic exchanges.

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