In discussing how America should respond to the North Korean artillery attack on South Korea, almost all the discussion invariably turns to what China will do. The only ally of North Korea, China is the only nation in the world which can effectively pressure North Korea.
There has been quite a bit of debate about what China is thinking right now. Many hope that China will value its commercial ties to the West above its ties to North Korea. Others point out, less optimistically, that China wishes to preserve North Korea – if North Korea fell, millions of impoverished refugees would flood into the country. Moreover, a reunified Korea would be aligned with the West, constituting a threat next to China’s border.
All this is very much speculation and guesswork. What does China really think about the North Korean attack?
Actually, it is very easy to find out what China thinks. In fact, the Chinese government has an official press agency: Xinhua. Most people probably don’t know this, but Xinhua can be read for free online in English.
So what does China think about the North Korean attack?
Well, what better way to find out than to go read the Chinese government’s official newspaper!
Xinhua has several articles covering the incident. Unfortunately, most of the stuff is fairly boring – a simple recitation of facts. Unlike newspapers such as the Times, there is little editorializing and little insertion of opinion. In general, more room is given to what North Korea is saying without the obvious disbelief present in Western newspapers. The frame is: South Korea says this, North Korea says that, we don’t know who’s right other than there was artillery fired by both sides.
Perhaps the most revealing section was this quote:
Though Seoul blamed Pyongyang for military provocations, there is still no way to confirm who started the shelling attack.
A statement issued by the DPRK army accused South Korea of setting off the exchange of fire, saying dozens of shells from the south fell in the waters of DPRK around Yonphyong Islet at 1:00 o’clock p.m. local time Tuesday afternoon. Ensuing shellings were countering measures of the DPRK, it said.
Acknowledging it did fire shots in the area, South Korea denied any of the test shots fell in the DPRK territory.
The incident came as South Korea was engaged in a massive annual military exercises involving some 70,000 troops, launched Monday and scheduled to last through Nov. 30. Pyongyang has repeatedly warned against such military drills, usually joined by U.S. soldiers, describing them as provocations and real threats to its security.
So here one gets a pretty clear sense of what China might say: either we don’t know who really started it, or North Korea’s attack was provoked by South Korea.
This is not very comforting for the West. For multiple times North Korea has launched military aggressions that could be construed as acts of war. Reading Xinhua seems to indicate that China still is not ready to out-and-out criticize North Korea for these attacks. The North Korean artillery attacks have not been the first time North Korea has killed South Koreans without much response. As long as China’s stance remains unchanged, it will probably not be the last.
(A note: Reporting in China can often be quite different between English-language and Chinese-language news. English reports in China generally have more freedom and leeway, and therefore may be more critical. For comparison’s sake, several articles in Chinese – translated by google – can be found here and here. The translation is pretty bad, but there didn’t seem to be too much difference between what the Chinese version and English version articles were saying.)