BEIJING — Is China really willing to dump its old ally, North Korea? Would China support a German-style reunification of the Korean peninsula in which economically powerful South Korea absorbed its poor communist neighbor?
That may have been the impression left by U.S. diplomatic cables relating to North Korea that were made public this week by WikiLeaks. But analysts who have followed the long entanglement of China and North Korea say much of the information in the outed memos amounts to little more than dinner-party chatter that reflects outdated opinion or wishful thinking.
"This is opposed to Beijing's declared position and would go against China's perceived interests," said Shi Yinhong of Beijing's Renmin University, speaking of a leaked cable that suggested China was prepared for the collapse of North Korea and for the country to be reunited under a South Korea-led government in Seoul. "Besides, it is just an American diplomat quoting a South Korean diplomat quoting a Chinese diplomat."
The reunification discussion was reported in a memo sent by the U.S. ambassador in Seoul, Kathleen Stephens, after a lunch in February 2009 with a senior South Korean official, Chun Yung Woo, who is now national security adviser. He told Stephens, paraphrasing Chinese officials, that the younger generation of the Chinese leadership was fed up with North Korea's Kim Jong Il and ready to "face the new reality" on the peninsula. North Korea "had already collapsed economically and would collapse politically two to three years after the death of Kim Jong Il," Chun was reported to have said in the cable.
The Chinese government has declined to comment on the leaked diplomatic dispatches, among more than 250,000 provided in advance by WikiLeaks to several news outlets. "We don't want to see any disturbance to China-U.S. relations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a press briefing Tuesday.
The WikiLeaks revelations could prove more embarrassing to Seoul than to Beijing. In South Korea, it is taboo for officials to speak openly about Kim Jong Il's personal life or the possibility of a North Korean collapse for fear of inflaming Pyongyang.
The South Korean presidential office in Seoul on Tuesday issued a terse statement saying no North Korean regime change has been considered.