Defang North Korea: Let Beijing Take the Lead

According to the administration, almost everything North Korea has done over the last five years has been unacceptable. But no matter: Pyongyang forged ahead with its nuclear plans.  

"The proclaimed actions taken by North Korea are unacceptable," said President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the North's apparent nuclear test. But the president and his aides have been saying much the same thing for five years. There is a big difference between Washington viewing the act as unacceptable and making it unacceptable. In particular, what thinks Beijing?

After all, in the opinion of the Bush Administration, almost everything done by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea over the last five years has been unacceptable. But no matter: Pyongyang forged ahead with its nuclear plans. Now, it seems, North Korea has officially joined the eight other nuclear weapons states.

For all the furor generated by North Korea's announcement, nothing has really changed. It has long been assumed that the DPRK possessed enough plutonium to make as many as a dozen bombs and was weapons-capable. Many steps likely remain before Pyongyang actually creates a deliverable weapon. In any deal, the North's substantial nuclear infrastructure would have to be dismantled, whether or not Kim Jong-il's regime had conducted a test. With his latest gambit, Kim merely has confirmed everyone's suspicions.

Still, disarming North Korea today seems an even more daunting task than persuading Pyongyong not to trek down the nuclear road. The increasingly vivid vision of a potential weapon is likely to whet Kim's appetite for more. Every fearful complaint and unrealized threat voiced abroad merely encourage Kim to move ahead. For he and his nation are important internationally only because of the nuclear weapons program. And only a nuclear arsenal can truly ensure against an attempt at regime change by the Republic of Korea, United States, or, less plausibly, Japan, or even China.

In fact, unless the Bush Administration is prepared to trigger the Second Korean War, Washington can do little: the only justification for a military strike would be an imminent military threat, but none exists.  Moreover, there are no diplomatic relations to break, no economic ties to sever.

There's only pushing for "an immediate response by the United Nations Security Council," in the president's words. America's UN ambassador, John Bolton, has called for "a strong response," not just "a piece of paper." Washington has proposed banning luxury and military trade, inspecting North Korean cargoes, and freezing assets connected to weapons sales. But these steps will be possible only with the acquiescence of the People's Republic of China and Russia. The latter has little at stake, other than stored resentment over recent U.S. policy. However, even Moscow might be reluctant to sanction a de facto blockade, technically an act of war.

The PRC has long stood in the breach for North Korea. Although no longer as close to the DPRK as during the Cold War, Beijing supplies North Korea with food and oil. China advocated bilateral discussions between Washington and the North. Beijing steered previous Security Council meetings away from sanctions, softened the Security Council resolution adopted after the July missile tests, criticized Australia and Japan for imposing their own economic restrictions last month, and weakened the statement issued by the Security Council last week to dissuade the North from initiating a test.

Still, China's patience does not appear to be inexhaustible. The PRC long has been dissatisfied with its client's behavior. China has pushed Pyongyang to attend the six-party talks and criticized North Korean belligerence. At Washington's request Beijing recently sanctioned a North Korean bank in Macao for apparent money laundering.  In July Beijing publicly warned the North against its multiple missile tests.

Last week China's UN ambassador stated that no one would "protect" Pyongyang "for bad behavior." At Sunday's summit between Chinese President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the two nations said they were "deeply concerned" about the DPRK's prospective nuclear test, which "would be a great threat and would be unacceptable." For once the PRC finds itself in the same position as America: under pressure to actually make Pyongyang's actions seem unacceptable to Pyongyang.

However, Beijing long has feared a North Korean implosion more than a North Korean nuke: the former threatens chaos, conflict, refugees, and, perhaps most importantly, a united Korea allied with the United States on China's border. The PRC's reluctance to apply the sort of pressure that might actually work was evident when the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared itself "firmly against" any military action and called for a "peaceful resolution through consultation and dialogue," the DPRK's return to the six-party talks, and a "cool-headed" international response to the test.

How to persuade the PRC to act? The U.S. needs to convince China that the consequences of not acting might be worse: nuclear proliferation spreading to South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. That possibility has received increasing attention in the wake of Pyongyang's Sunday test. Washington need not threaten to arm its allies, but simply suggest that it might let events proceed naturally, refusing to thwart such a progression. China worries about Japan's increasing nationalistic assertiveness. The PRC is particularly concerned about independence-minded forces on Taiwan, which would like nothing more than to acquire a nuclear deterrent. A growing North Korean nuclear arsenal might be the trigger for a proliferation explosion.