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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (February 16, 2005)

North Korean Nuclear Crisis - A smack in China's Face

Jing-Dong Yuan (Associate Professor, Monterey Institute of International Studies)

Pyongyang's announcement that it has "manufactured nukes for self-defence" and was suspending its participation in the six-party talks "for an indefinite period" again casts a temporary shadow over the future of the 18-month-old process. It comes at a time when many analysts had hoped that a window of opportunity was opening - especially after US President George W. Bush had indicated in his state of the union address on February 2 that Washington would work with other Asian governments to seek a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue. Pyongyang's move is certainly a disappointment to the parties involved, and the international community at large.

The latest brinkmanship has put China in a difficult position. Granted, at least Pyongyang gave Beijing some "face" by issuing its statement prior to a Chinese envoy's planned visit to North Korea, and by putting the blame squarely on Washington and, to some extent, Tokyo. But Pyongyang's decision also pre-empts Beijing's mediating options.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded by reiterating China's long-held desire for a denuclearised Korean Peninsula, and indicated that it hoped the six-party talks would continue. Beijing appears to have been pre-warned about the dramatic turn of events, as it cautioned the US not to publicise the reported North Korean transfers of nuclear materials to Libya. But China has much to worry about, both in terms of its own reputation and the broader ramifications for regional security.

Its more proactive diplomacy over the past two years, first as the convener of a trilateral meeting and then as host of the six-party talks, while laudable has yet to produce the desired results. Beijing knows full well that the key to any resolution of the nuclear issue still ultimately lies with North Korea and the US.

Pyongyang's announcement that it now has nuclear weapons is also a slap in Beijing's face. While most western officials have long held that North Korea possesses the fissile material for six to eight nuclear weapons, China has yet to officially accept this. Indeed, it has raised the issue of such western assertions, in particular after the intelligence debacle over alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

But perhaps the most worrisome aspect of the crisis is its impact on regional security, especially the potential reaction from Japan, whose recent military activities are a deep concern to China. However, Beijing's options are limited, and any action could have potentially negative trade-offs.

China could express its impatience with North Korea by subtly applying economic pressure, as it did two years ago when it suspended oil supplies. It could also indicate its neutrality over any US proposal to bring the issue to the UN Security Council for possible economic sanctions. The problem is that these actions would be unlikely to bring about the required outcome, and could further escalate tension. Indeed, if events were to take such a turn, China is likely to be the one that would also endure the consequences, including - but not limited to - a massive influx of refugees, disruption of its economic ties with the region's key partners, and a post-conflict environment not entirely to Beijing's liking.

It is very likely that China will advise caution and cool-headedness while looking for ways to gently nudge the North Koreans away from a path of confrontation. But Beijing needs help from Washington as much as from Pyongyang. For the time being at least, the most it can hope for is an avoidance of harsh words and angry reactions from the US and Japan. Turning things around yet again may prove to be one of the toughest tests for Beijing's diplomatic skills.

(Originally appeared in the February 16, 2005 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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