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As Hu Visits U.S., South Korea Looks to Chinese Influence to Rein in North

January 18, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
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Margaret Warner reports from Seoul, where Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to the U.S. is being closely watched for what might be said about North Korea's nuclear ambitions. The U.S. and South Korea have reaffirmed their alliance after two attacks by the North, and pressed China to discourage further Northern provocations.

TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: The state visit is being watched around the world, of course, including in South Korea. Attention there is focused on discussions of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Margaret Warner has been reporting from Seoul this week. Jeffrey Brown spoke to her earlier today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret, last night, your story focused on the latest tensions between North and South Korea. Given those developments, how do the South Koreans view this visit to Washington by President Hu? What do they want the U.S. to push vis-a-vis North Korea?

MARGARET WARNER: They think this is a huge visit, Jeff.

And what they want, bottom line, is, they want President Obama to persuade President Hu that China needs to pressure North Korea to act more — quote — “responsibly” vis-a-vis South Korea. That means to end these military attacks or provocations and also get serious about limiting their missile and nuclear weapons program.

And they want — what’s more, they want Beijing to persuade North Korea to do it on the South’s terms — that is, to have a preliminary meeting where they admit and apologize for the attacks of last year.

Fair to say that South Korea feels betrayed by China in the last year, because China wouldn’t join the rest of the world in rebuking North Korea for either the attack of the warship Cheonan, which was last March, or this recent November shelling of this island near the two coasts.

So, I asked one senior official here, well, what makes you think that President Obama has that leverage with China? And he said, “Oh, no one — no country has more clout with China than the United States, because China’s prosperity depends on the U.S. market.”

So, rightly or wrongly, I think the South Koreans are hoping for something out of this meeting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, how much influence do the South Koreans think China has on North Korea, particularly on its nuclear aspirations?

MARGARET WARNER: Again, they think a lot.

And they point out, particularly since international sanctions have gone into effect, that North Korea is hugely dependent on China economically. The figures used here — and it’s always hard to know about North Korea — is that North Korea gets 90 percent of its oil, 80 percent of its foreign trade, 45 percent to 50 percent of its food from China.

What’s more, essentially, North Korea’s only border to the rest of the world, land border, is with China. There’s a teeny sliver where it joins Russia, but, otherwise, it’s all China. North Korea needs that border for both legitimate trade and for smuggling.

So, as far as the South Koreans are concerned, the Chinese have a lot of leverage, but they’re not willing to use it. There are a lot of theories here as to why. The most prevalent theory is, the South Koreans believe, that the Chinese are afraid that, if — that North Korea is so fragile that, if they put too much pressure on it and there’s any instability, that will just spill over into China, but what’s more, that, in fact, if there is some kind of collapse up there, that South Korea will rush in, they will have a unified Korean Peninsula that is democratic and a market economy right on China’s borders.

So, the national security adviser, Chun, said to me late last week, “China values today’s peace and stability more than they value tomorrow’s” — in other words, that they want the status quo.

JEFFREY BROWN: The broader question, of course, is China flexing its power in so many ways throughout Asia, including South Korea. How is that felt there? Where do you see China’s impact?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, first of all, Jeff, clearly, economically, in trade. In other words, China is South Korea’s number-one trading partner. And, unlike the United States South Korea and China — the — South Korea actually has a positive trade balance with China, in other words, more exports to China than imports.

So, South Korea did incredibly well in the global recession. They were the first OECD country to actually bounce back. And that’s because China remained a very vibrant market. So, that’s the first economic clout that you see.

And — and they watched with alarm as China — for instance, remember when they cut off the rare earth metals exports to Japan over a fishing waters dispute? One industrialist here said to me the other day, “you know, that — Koreans now see the Chinese as they always have or as they always have been, which are bullies.”

On the other hand, militarily, they do see China flexing its muscle militarily or building itself up militarily. I met with a deputy defense minister today who talked about that. But they don’t feel under any threat from China. After all, they have U.S. troops here. What they do see is, as he said to me today, they see China aiding North Korea economically and militarily, at least in so far as giving, helping the — the North Korean military with fuel. (See Deputy Defense Minister for Policy, Chang Gwang Il’s comments on China.)

So, they — they’re uncomfortable with China’s growing power, but not as an immediate threat to them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, we’re talking about recent events, but there’s a lot of history here, right, with Korea forced to see and deal with China as the great power?

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, absolutely, Jeff.

More than one person has said to me, you know, we have been invaded by Japan or China literally hundreds of times in the last 2,000 or 3,000 years. For — there were centuries where Korea was considered a — quote — “vassal state” to China. So, if a ruler was going to come into power in Korea, it had to be approved by the Chinese Imperial Court.

And one businessman I talked to the other day said:China still sees us as a satellite. South Korea, we may be the 12th largest GDP in the world; they still see us as a satellite.”

There is an expression here that Korea sometimes uses about itself, describing itself as a shrimp between two whales, the whales, of course, being China and Japan. And so you can — and if you look at Korea, it’s shaped like a shrimp.

So, that gives you a sense of Korea’s sense of its place in this booming East Asia economy. On the one hand, they’re very happy to be here. They want to be part of that club, that very vibrant economic club. But they do have a sense that they are indeed still a shrimp between two whales.

JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret Warner in Seoul, South Korea, thanks a lot.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Jeff.

JIM LEHRER: On Thursday, Margaret examines South Korean reaction to the state visit.