China and the Crisis in Korea

When considering China's role in the North Korea crisis, three overarching questions for America rise to the mind.

 When considering China's role in the North Korea crisis, three overarching questions for America rise to the mind. First, is North Korea prepared to trade its nuclear programs for security and economic guarantees?  This seems unlikely, but the possibility should be tested through negotiations, if possible.  Second, will America's efforts to end the North's nuclear programs drive a wedge into our valued alliance relationship with the Republic of Korea? Third, short of regime change in North Korea, can the United States have any confidence in an inspection regime? After all, North Korea is honeycombed with tunnels and it is developing multiple nuclear programs.

The answers to these questions could have a profound impact on the manner in which Washington attempts to work with China to address the North Korean problem.  The other key question, of course, is how China views the crisis in Korea 

Having just returned from China, where I spoke to high level government officials and others, it is quite clear to me that China has been fairly helpful to the United States in dealing with North Korea.  And, while some in the U.S. government may give a little different shading on that, my impression is that the Bush Administration values the assistance that China is providing.

China's cooperation is driven in large part by Beijing's increasing disaffection with the North Koreans. This disaffection has been building for a long time, but has recently become more pronounced almost by the day. Nevertheless, as much as the U.S. and China agree that we don't want a nuclear North Korea our two countries are not yet entirely on the same page in dealing with the problem.  In other words, we agree on the objectives, but we don't quite agree on the means to achieve those objectives.

China's position on North Korea has changed quite dramatically in the last nine months.  Nine months ago, I was privileged to voyage to China with former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft.  We met with very senior Chinese security leaders who then argued that perhaps the North Koreans were bluffing, that they don't have what you Americans think they have.  The line out of Beijing then was that putting too much pressure on the North Koreans is going to be counterproductive and that while a nuclear North was not desirable, instability, war or social breakdown in the North might be worse-at least for China.

Today, the Chinese view has moved considerably in a direction more comfortable to Americans, and China has become much more diplomatically engaged: Beijing is beginning to put considerable pressure on Pyongyang.

Signs of the impending shift were visible as early as October 2002, when one of China's deputy ministers of foreign affairs briefed the Politburo on the North's announcement of its uranium enrichment program.  Chinese leaders termed the announcement "diplomatic adventurism"; in communist-speak, this meant that North Korea's actions were viewed as recklessly endangering China's national interests.

More recently, in December and January of last year, when Pyongyang threatened withdrawal and then actually pulled out of the non-proliferation treaty, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan traveled to North Korea and made it clear China's opposition to the move.

In March of this year, then vice premier Qian Qichen-still influential today-made a secret trip to North Korea where, as I understand it, he told the North Koreans to start talking to the United States.  The three-way talks in Beijing followed quickly, in April.  Most recently, in mid-July, deputy minister of foreign affairs Dai Binggou carried a letter from China's president to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il again advising the North to resume talks with Washington.

The Chinese have clearly been trying to get the North Koreans to the diplomatic table, but they have not stopped at diplomacy. They have also been applying pressure, something that they had been reluctant to do before.  More than a decade ago, China began forcing North Korea to pay for many goods that were previously provided free or at heavily subsidized prices.  More recently, as Beijing became more alarmed with the nuclear program in North Korea, China briefly interrupted oil supplies in February 2003 to indicate to the North Koreans the potential cost of continuing with their program.  Finally, I have every reason to believe that Beijing has told Pyongyang in no uncertain terms that if North Korea starts a war on the Korean peninsula, China will not be there as it was in 1950. 

Why is China moving in our direction?  Two reasons: China's mounting frustration with North Korea, and the fear that the North Korean regime is jeopardizing Chinese interests.  Without listing every perceived slight, many Chinese feel that the North Koreans have never given them due accounting or acknowledgement of the forces China lost in the Korean War. Then there is the question of aid.  About 40 per cent of Chinese foreign aid goes to North Korea which Beijing increasingly sees this as a sinkhole for its scarce resources.  And Pyongyang recently set up a special economic zone near the Chinese border-to China's displeasure-and put an accused Chinese criminal in charge of it, adding insult to injury.

The second reason China is moving in our direction is the perception that North Korea is jeopardizing China's national interests.  And what are those?  First of all, China already deals with substantial numbers of economic and political refugees from North Korea, making Beijing an object of international criticism at a time when China is trying to become a more respected member of the international community.  This works against both China's economic goals internally and its prestige goals abroad.