SEOUL, South Korea — A top South Korean official dismisses China's nuclear negotiator as "incompetent." A Chinese envoy mocks North Korea as a "spoiled child."
After a major escalation of sporadic skirmishes between the rival Koreas, an international effort is trying to rein in rising tensions. But U.S. diplomatic memos leaked this week call into question whether regional powers — most notably China — have any insight into or influence over enigmatic and defiant North Korea.
South Korea's military drill last week from an island along a disputed maritime border sparked a North Korean artillery attack that killed four South Koreans and wounded 18 others. U.S.-South Korean war games — including the presence of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in the waters to the south — are threatening to draw a new round of North Korean fire.
China is pressing for an emergency meeting in the coming days to discuss the attack and ways to defuse tensions, saying the session should be convened by the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States — the members of the stalled North Korean nuclear disarmament talks.
"China consistently supports dialogue between the North and South sides of the Korean peninsula to improve their relations," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Tuesday.
The talks would be just what North Korea wants. After walking away from the talks in April 2009, Pyongyang has made clear in recent months that it is ready to restart the negotiations to gain much-needed fuel oil and aid in exchange for nuclear disarmament.
Seoul has reacted coolly to the proposal. South Korean officials said they must consider it carefully, citing Pyongyang's recent revelation of a new uranium enrichment facility that would give North Korea a second way to make nuclear bombs.
Tokyo and Washington have backed Seoul, and the three powers arranged to meet in Washington — rather than Beijing — next week to discuss North Korea in a move that clearly underlined the fault line in the "six-party" negotiations.
U.S. officials said Washington was ruling out the six-party talks for the time being. The United States wants "China to urge North Korea to stop the destabilization," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. "But I think there has to be a seriousness on the part of the North Koreans to get back to these talks."
Japan, too, rejected an immediate round of aid-for-disarmament talks, but sent its envoy to the North Korean nuclear discussions, Akitaka Saiki, to China to meet with counterpart Wu Dawei. Saiki told Wu it wasn't the right time to restart the talks, according to the Kyodo News Agency.
China, belatedly waking up to its role as North Korea's mentor, invited high-ranking North Korean official Choe Thae Bok, an aide to leader Kim Jong Il, to Beijing for talks. State Councilor Dai Bingguo, meanwhile, was sent to Pyongyang to urge North Korea to join the emergency meeting, Kyodo reported from the Chinese capital.
All parties will have competing ideas on how to resolve the tension, said Kim Keun-sik, a North Korea analyst at South Korea's Kyungnam University.
"North Korea and China will want to resolve the matter through dialogue, while South Korea and the U.S. will say, 'Why negotiate at this time?' and think about pressure and punitive measures," he said.
Consensus may be hard to reach, if secret U.S. diplomatic cables posted online by the website WikiLeaks are any indication.
China is Pyongyang's closest ally — Beijing fought on the northern side of the Korean War and its aid props up the current regime — and its actions have often served to insulate North Korea from foreign pressure. It has repeatedly opposed harsh economic sanctions and responded to North Korean provocations by repeating calls for a return to denuclearization talks.
However, Chinese officials are quoted as using mocking language in reference to North Korea, with then-Deputy Foreign Minister He Yafei telling a U.S. official in April 2009 that Pyongyang was acting like a "spoiled child" by staging a missile test to try to achieve its demand of bilateral talks with Washington.
China would appear to have little ability to stop a collapse and less influence over the authorities in Pyongyang than is widely believed, South Korea's then-Vice Foreign Minister, Chun Yung-woo, is quoted as telling U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens in February.
China lacks the will to push North Korea to change its behavior, according to Chun, who said the choice to keep Wu — considered "the most incompetent official in China" — as nuclear envoy was "a very bad thing" and indicative of Beijing's disregard for the process.
Still, Chun predicted Beijing wouldn't oppose the U.S. and South Korea in case the North Korean regime collapsed.
China "would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the U.S. in a 'benign alliance' as long as Korea was not hostile towards China," Chun said.
One diplomatic cable lauded South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's courting of the Chinese as "noteworthy successes," added that he met with President Hu Jintao an unprecedented three times in his first year in office.
However, another memo painted a different picture of their relationship, saying Hu pointedly ignored one request on North Korean refugees and "pretended not to hear" a question about a contingency plan for the collapse of North Korea.
Another cable hinted at a South Korean strategy to remain at odds with the North to encourage such a collapse — even at the risk of heightened tensions.Comment on this story
"It is our assessment that Lee's more conservative advisers and supporters see the current standoff as a genuine opportunity to push and further weaken the North, even if this might involve considerable brinkmanship."
It helps Lee that the South Korean public is "calm to the point of apathy" about inter-Korean relations, the cable said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday that WikiLeaks acted illegally in posting the leaked documents online. Officials worldwide say the disclosures jeopardize national security, diplomats, intelligence assets and relationships between foreign governments.
Contributing: Hyung-jin Kim