The New York Times and the Guardian have released their day-two stories from WikiLeaks’s latest data dump: a quarter million confidential American diplomatic cables. This time, the emphasis is on North Korea. The WikiLeaks documents end in February, a month before North Korea is believed to have launched the torpedo that struck down a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors. But they depict a guessing game played by China, the U.S., and South Korea as to how North Korea’s economic and succession problems might lead to its collapse — and how each side was trying to prepare without knowing the facts. In February, a South Korean official, Chun Woo, told U.S. ambassador Kathleen Stephens that North Korea’s demise would likely come “two to three years” after Kim Jong-il’s death, and that the younger generation of Chinese leaders “would be comfortable with a reunited Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a benign alliance.” Other cables revealed that Bejing, whose food and fuel sustain the impoverished dictatorship (and apparently the Kims’ diet), consider their ally “a spoiled child.”
But China’s frustration with Pyongyang, which has increased since its missile and nuclear tests last year and has grown with fears of a succession struggle, doesn’t mean Beijing necessarily agrees that Seoul is poised to take over. In fact, one cable says a Chinese expert warned that Washington was fooling itself if it believed that “North Korea would implode after Kim Jong-il’s death.” (The U.S. braced for a similar outcome in 1994 when the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, suddenly died.) The Times says the cables are more a show of hope than anything else, calling the interviews with defectors and other experts “long on educated guesses and short on facts, illustrating why their subject is known as the Black Hole of Asia.”
According to the documents, Seoul has been trying to placate China by assuring Chinese companies that they would have plenty of commercial opportunities to mine the mineral-rich northern part of the peninsula. Another cable revealed that “China would clearly ‘not welcome’ any U.S. military presence north of the DMZ,” the demarcation line that now divides the two Koreas.
Although China refused to condemn North Korea’s decision to fire on the South Korean island Yeonpyeong last week, Beijing today appeared to bend to American pressure, calling for “emergency consultations” and inviting a senior North Korean official to Beijing.
Until now, fears of the fallout from WikiLeaks’s releases have centered primarily on the danger it could cause to diplomatic missions and to troops, officials, and allies overseas. The Times stresses that the cables are from the State Department, and not intelligence reports, which means they exclude “the most secret American assessments, or the American military’s plans.” But it’s hard not to view this latest exposure of classified documents — which come (a) just days after North Korea threatened military strikes, (b) three weeks after North Korea revealed the existence of a uranium-enrichment plant, and (c) involve a dictator whose paranoia even China mocks — as more impactful, potentially changing the course of negotiations.