China Korea

Debating North Korea

As rumbles from North Korea’s sixth nuclear test in September 2017 subsided, debate within China exploded into character assassinations and insults. Zhu Zhihua 朱志华 a little known scholar from the Zhejiang Association of International Relations savaged Jia Qingguo 贾庆国, prominent dean of the Peking University School of International Studies, for his proposal to start contingency planning talks with the US and South Korea, which ‘copy the US’ and ‘hint a military attack may be the next step’. Evoking the spectre of Cultural Revolution struggle sessions, he insinuated Jia held a wrong ‘political standpoint’. Jia hit back, calling Zhu a career public security officer who misrepresented his views. Scholars should not be treated as suspects, contended Jia, recommending the Zhejiang Association of International Relations replace Zhu. Zhu retorted that Jia’s US education had brainwashed him, suggesting relevant authorities examine his political background. Jia was eventually backed by the hawkish Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin 胡锡进, and others arguing that differences of opinion over North Korea should not be politicised.

The Zhu–Jia face off is revealing. It shows red lines for public discourse continue to be redrawn: contingency planning is no longer taboo. Further, while critics of ties with North Korea have multiplied and become more vocal, conservatives have not yet given up the fight. Finally, the temperature in Beijing is rising to match Trump’s Twitter feed.

Zhu and Jia, reports Singapore daily Lianhe Zaobao, represent two distinct schools of thought on a nuclear North Korea’s security implications. On one front, a conservative ‘leftist’ school sees the US and South Korea using Pyongyang’s nuclear program as a pretext to reduce China’s strategic space. A more liberal ‘rightist’ school on the opposing front emphasises the threat North Korea poses to China, urging closer cooperation with the international community. While neither school is unified, their views regarding the origins and consequences of North Korea’s nuclear program are starkly divided.

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