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Commentary (February 23, 2005)

North Korean Nuclear Crisis: A Road Map - The Only Route for Beijing

John Park (Fellow, Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University)

In the North Korean nuclear crisis, there is a big difference between having leverage and the ability to use it. China has the former, but not the latter. North Korea has both.

On paper, China has the political, military and economic leverage to effect significant change in the North Korean regime's behaviour and in the regime itself. The international community saw glimpses of this when Beijing temporarily shut off an oil pipeline to North Korea in early 2003. At present, however, China is significantly constrained by three factors that Pyongyang is aware of, and uses to its advantage.

First, the prospect of growing numbers of North Koreans roaming around China's northeastern provinces is a serious concern for Beijing. As these refugees settle in China, the message to those remaining in impoverished North Korea would be one of exodus. Should that message spread throughout the country, a collapse of the Kim Jong-il regime could occur, resulting in a massive influx of refugees to China. Beijing's desire to avoid the prospect of a full-blown refugee crisis was an impetus for providing significant aid to North Korea when it almost became a failed state following the great famine in the late 1990s.

The second factor is China's focus on achieving its internal economic development goals. As tensions were escalating between Washington and Pyongyang following the 2002 revelation of North Korea's uranium weapons programme, the Chinese leadership asked its policy analysts how China would be affected by a sudden collapse of the Kim regime. Among the policy papers that came back, the ones focusing on the impact on internal economic development received closest attention.

Currently, South Korea is China's largest foreign direct investor in many key industries. Should there be a sudden collapse of North Korea, the South would be forced to redirect significant portions of its investments to reconstruction. With the Chinese objective of reaching a US$3,000 gross domestic product per capita figure by 2020, any disruption to the foreign direct investment inflow critical to job and wealth creation would make attaining this goal much more difficult.

The third and most important factor is China's desire to uphold its newly earned reputation as an international statesman with its six-party talks process. Ironically, while China's international prestige has grown because of this, so too has its exposure to North Korea's distinct negotiating style. As Pyongyang is the centrepiece of the talks, it knows that its participation is an invaluable instrument with which it can extract further economic and political concessions from China.

For North Korea, each of these core Chinese concerns has been an opportunity to secure more aid. North Korea's two-part statement on February 10 that it has nuclear weapons and will not attend the six-party talks for an indefinite period was effectively its version of applying leverage over China.

If China is to stay above the deepening diplomatic quagmire, it will have to abandon its ad-hoc approach to dealing with the nuclear crisis. This involves six countries with vastly differing priorities and policies.

What is urgently needed now is a Chinese-sponsored multilateral road map for negotiating North Korea's nuclear disarmament. This would comprise the key objectives of the other participants, thereby enabling Beijing to formulate a specific agenda that can be negotiated in a structured manner. Indeed, within this framework, each party's core priorities could be put into context and discussed with references to actions and timetables.

Without such a road map, the six-party talks will continue to be a shiny car without an engine. In the end, the talks will go nowhere and North Korea's leverage over China will continue to grow.

(Originally appeared in the February 23, 2005 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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