A young Vietnamese man pulled out his phone and asked me if I knew about what was happening in Korea.
He passed the device to me where the presidents of North Korea and South Korea were meeting on the border between the two countries.
“I feel a lot safer now than I did a few minutes ago,” he told me in Lhasa, Tibet.
For many people, North Korean President Kim Jong-un is like the crazy uncle who you only see during the holidays. But many like the young Vietnamese man, Kim has loomed over the safety of the region.
Ironically, the Chinese press has spent little time talking about what other countries have labelled an important breakthrough.
In fact, Xinhua, the official government news agency, put the conclusion of a regional government conference as the lead story, with Korea down the list of news events. That story reported on the elimination of loudspeakers spouting propaganda from South Korea along the border, with a note that the Chinese foreign minister plans a visit to North Korea.
More important, The South China Morning Post, a somewhat independent news organization in Hong Kong, posed an awkward headline: “China could be excluded from peace talks.”
Zhang Liangui, a specialist on Korea at the Central Party School, which trains Communist Party officials, said Beijing’s policy on North Korea in recent years could see it excluded from the peace process.
“The stance of China’s foreign ministry has been that [the North Korean nuclear crisis] is none of its business and that North Korea and the U.S. should be communicating directly,” Zhang told The Post. “So now things are out of China’s control, and it is no surprise that it is being excluded from the discussions.”
A senior diplomat in Seoul told The South China Morning Post that both Koreas wanted to dilute Beijing’s influence over the peninsula.
It’s rather ironic since the Korean War was essentially a battle between China and the United States for influence in the region. Moreover, China was a signatory to the armistice that ended the war in 1953.
Whatever the case, those who live near North Korea breathed a significant sigh of relief when the two sides of the Korean conflict met for the first time in more than a decade.