A delegation of North Korean Foreign Ministry officials from Pyongyang landed at a Beijing airport on April 17, four days after the reclusive country's unsuccessful launch of a long-range ballistic missile under the guise of a satellite launch.
The delegation included senior officials of the ministry's China bureau, according to a source in Beijing knowledgeable about China-North Korea relations. Their visit to China had been arranged hastily following the missile launch.
The visit could have a hidden meaning, I told myself. In fact, you naturally develop a feel for secret goings-on if you pay daily visits to airports and embassies in Beijing to watch the movements of Beijing and Pyongyang's senior government officials.
The latest visit has not been announced by the authorities and media of either country. Visits at times of souring bilateral relations and important visits have never been announced publicly.
For example, Jang Song Thaek, the vice chairman of North Korea's National Defense Commission, who is an uncle and apparent guardian of the country's youthful leader, Kim Jong Un, is believed to be a China expert who pays frequent visits to the country. I have seen no official announcement, however, of his solo visits to China, except when he accompanied the late Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un's father and predecessor.
On one occasion, I spotted Jang by chance at an airport in Beijing. I approached him to ask questions, but I ended up being held in a full nelson by sturdy bodyguards who surrounded him.
The latest visit by the North Koreans was apparently an occasion to complain to China.
On April 16, the day before the visit, the United Nations Security Council had adopted a presidential statement to "strongly condemn" Pyongyang's missile launch. The North Koreans expressed dissatisfaction at China's approval of the statement's adoption, said a diplomatic source in Beijing.
Kim Yong Il, the director of the international department of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party of Korea, visited China later in the month.
"Let's strive together for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," Chinese President Hu Jintao told him, but Kim Yong Il indicated his country would make no concession on the missile launch, which he said was Kim Jong Il's "dying instruction." "The people of Korea will inherit Kim Jong Il's dying wish and pursue their revolution further," Kim Yong Il said.
On earlier occasions, Beijing had been more forgiving of North Korea's missile launches than it was to the country's nuclear tests. When Pyongyang last launched a missile in 2009, China even sided with North Korea by giving full approval to the country's claim that it was a satellite launch for peaceful purposes.
But things were different this time.
"It was the best ending, although I cannot say it out loud," Chinese government and Communist Party sources told me following the failed missile launch.
Beijing apparently seriously feared a scenario, in which the missile drifts out of its planned trajectory, the Tokyo-Washington-Seoul triangle intercepts it, Pyongyang retaliates and the situation spirals into a semblance of all-out war.
During a March 26 summit meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Seoul, Hu expressed concerns about Pyongyang's planned missile launch.
"We do not hope to see a reversal of the hard-won momentum of relaxation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula," Hu said.
South Korean officials said that Hu went as far as pledging to make efforts to stop the launch.
I could hardly believe my ears on hearing of that unprecedentedly tough approach toward North Korea.
Why had that attitude changed so drastically in a matter of just three years?
One source at a Chinese government-affiliated think tank cited the influence of online public opinion as the biggest factor.
The number of Internet users in China is surging and has topped the 500 million mark. The use of "weibo" micro-blogging services, the Chinese answer to Twitter, is also exploding, and regulations by the authorities are hard-pressed to catch up with the situation.
Online opinion has now likely grown into a major influence on government diplomacy and policies.
In the past, Beijing complied with Pyongyang's request and remained silent on Kim Jong Il's visits to China until he was finally on his way back home. The authorities deleted most of the relevant information on the Internet.
But things were different when Kim Jong Il visited China in May last year.
While he was still visiting, some Chinese media outlets carried "original reports" on Kim Jong Il's whereabouts. Online postings, such as "A special train has passed" and "I spotted him touring a department store in the neighborhood," were left undeleted. Some of the postings were virulent. "There is a big traffic jam because of the North Korean leader. Go home quickly," one of them said.
"Beijing may have concluded that there was no longer a need for restraint in the face of a North Korea that was ever more reliant on China," said a diplomatic source in Beijing.
In particular, China's angry reaction to the latest missile launch was apparently fueled by the fact that the trajectory was set above sea areas close to China, unlike in the previous test-firing, when the projectile flew over Japan.
My rough estimate is that 90 percent of online postings were critical of North Korea. Many of them used spiteful words.
"Stop food aid and impose sanctions," one of them said. "Shoot it down with an interceptor missile," said another.
"Blood-cemented alliance" is used to describe the strong bonds between the two countries that date back to the Korean War. But the latest developments in the bilateral relations suggest that the expression is something of the past.
That is why I feel a sense of discomfort when senior officials of Japan, the United States and South Korea call on their Chinese counterparts, during their meetings, to play a more active role "because Beijing has clout with Pyongyang."
"North Korea is a proud country," one senior Chinese military official said. "It does not heed China's advice as much as other countries may think it will."
I think it is high time for Tokyo to review its own strategies on North Korean affairs so that people no longer see Japan as counting too much on China.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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