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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (May 6, 2003)

China must descend from above fray

Weston S. Konishi (Senior research and program officer, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, Washington, D.C.)

Early reports of the April 23-25 meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials in Beijing are conflicting. Some accounts suggest that the meeting fizzled after Li Gun, Pyongyang's top diplomat at the talks, declared that his nation has nuclear weapons and is reprocessing weapons-grade plutonium. Still other accounts suggest that North Korea offered the most encouraging signs yet for resolving the current crisis. It may indeed be too early to draw any firm conclusions from the talks, but it is clear that whatever scenario plays out in the months ahead will require more active involvement from China.

Since tensions between the United States and North Korea erupted in October, Beijing has done its best to stay above the fray. This has required a delicate balancing act. On one hand, China has continued to play the part of North Korea's traditional ally and great power protector. China has opposed a U.N. Security Council statement that would have condemned Pyongyang for its violation of nuclear agreements and set the stage for possible U.N. economic sanctions against North Korea.

On the other hand, Beijing is increasingly frustrated with Pyongyang's threatening behavior and determination to develop nuclear weapons. China has long advocated a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and was troubled by the swift breakdown of the 1994 Agreed Framework, which was designed to freeze North Korea's nuclear programs. Like the United States and other nations, China is also concerned about North Korea's stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction and the potential for selling these weapons to the highest bidder.

Over the past six months, China has on the whole taken a passive approach to the North Korean problem. Beijing is reluctant to apply too much pressure to North Korea lest it be associated with Washington's hard-line policies. At the same time, China is wary of any measures that might trigger an extreme reaction in Pyongyang or instability on the Korean Peninsula. Most of all, China wants to avoid a collapse of the Kim Jong Il regime that could lead to a mass exodus of refugees into its province along the North Korean border.

Instead, China has tried to cast itself as a mediator between Pyongyang and Washington, even at times passing along diplomatic messages between the two opposing sides. North Korea's call for bilateral, as opposed to multilateral, talks has provided a convenient cover for China to remain a bystander in the crisis and allow the United States to take the blame for the impasse.

Washington has repeatedly urged China to take a more active role in pressuring North Korea to curb its nuclear ambitions. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and President George W. Bush have called on their Chinese counterparts to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs in return for increased economic aid. China's reticence to intervene more actively in the crisis has frustrated the U.S. side and disturbed what has otherwise been a relatively smooth period in Sino-U.S. ties.

There are, however, signs that China is willing to take a more proactive position in resolving the crisis. In February, China reportedly cut off gas supplies to North Korea for several days--an apparent reminder to Pyongyang that it is almost entirely dependent on fuel from China and that Beijing is not pleased with the recent turn of events. This measure is the first sign that China is willing to take punitive steps against North Korea if it continues to act irresponsibly.

Another positive development was Beijing's decision to host the recent dialogue between the United States and North Korea. Until April, the United States and North Korea have refused to engage in direct diplomatic talks due to the differences over bilateral and multilateral formats. China's gesture, however, provided a compromise for both sides to sit down and present their positions face-to-face for the first time since the crisis erupted.

Now that the Beijing meeting is over, will China recede into a more passive role or will it have a renewed commitment to resolving the North Korean crisis in tandem with other concerned nations?

The Beijing meeting itself may have provided more impetus for China's hands-on involvement in settling the crisis. Some reports suggest that Li's admission of a robust nuclear weapons program deeply upset Chinese officials and that Beijing is now in closer alignment with the United States than ever before. That is not to say that China would support military options against North Korea, but it could be more amenable to taking greater charge in solving the crisis multilaterally. To do so, China would first have to come to terms with the fact that it is a key regional player and that it cannot afford to stand by while the United States and North Korea confront each other head on. While its role as an interlocutor between the two sides has served a purpose, Beijing must be willing to take sides against Pyongyang as long as it continues to threaten regional stability. This may place China in an uncomfortable alliance of convenience with the United States and other Western powers, but China must do so if it is serious about its desire for a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula.

Beijing should also reconsider its long-term objectives with North Korea in light of the rapidly evolving crisis. Some experts believe that China's ultimate solution for dealing with Pyongyang is to promote reform of the North Korean political and economic system. Needless to say, this objective requires a significant amount of time to succeed and would not ameliorate the current tensions arising from the regime's accelerated nuclear brinkmanship. China should recognize the dangers of relying on long-term solutions to immediate regional security concerns.

Finally, China should not categorically oppose sanctions on North Korea if it continues to engage in provocative behavior. To be fair, economic sanctions might make the North Korean regime more desperate and act out more belligerently--and in the worst case scenario for China, might cause the precarious regime to collapse. Yet short of military action, a calibrated set of sanctions is the best way to punish North Korea for violating international agreements and compel Pyongyang to go back to the negotiating table.

There is some danger, however, in relying too heavily on Chinese intervention to help settle the North Korean crisis. Although China undoubtedly holds considerable clout over North Korea, its ability to control and influence the Pyongyang regime is subject to debate. China should not be regarded as the "silver bullet" that will bring an end to the current crisis. However, Beijing's active cooperation with other concerned nations would augment the multilateral effort to find a diplomatic response to the North Korean threat. Surely it is in China's best interest to ensure that the alternative response is not one that is drawn up in the Pentagon.

(This article originally appeared in the May 2, 2003 issue of The Daily Yomiuri, posted here with the permission of the author and the publisher. Do not quote without the author's permission.)

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