Why China should take the lead on North Korea
STEVE TSANG (Director of the Asian Studies Centre, St Antony's College, Oxford University)
This article originally appeared in the January 21, 2003 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher.
The Chinese government should do more than just offering to host talks between the United States and North Korea over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme. China is one of the very few countries in a position to play a constructive role in defusing the current tension and creating the conditions for a sustainable peace. It should broker an agreement to advance regional peace and Chinese national interests.
Precisely because North Korea's attempt to blackmail the US could lead to a full-blown crisis, it offers an excellent opportunity for China to show it is a responsible and constructive member of the international community.
China has little to lose by active involvement. A full-blown crisis between the US and North Korea would almost certainly involve China, as it would be forced to choose between giving support to the North Koreans - however reluctantly - and maintaining a friendly and highly profitable relationship with the US. A high-profile diplomatic approach to find a compromise would help China project an image of a responsible UN Security Council member working for peace, even if its effort fails.
Successful Chinese diplomacy would go a long way towards establishing China's position as a force for peace, stability and prosperity in the region. It would not only win friends for China in the US, Japan and South Korea, but would also weaken many of China's critics in those nations and most of the Asean countries that are concerned with the steady rise of Chinese power.
Chinese diplomacy should focus on three goals. First, to prevent the current diplomatic confrontation between the US and North Korea from developing into a real crisis. Second, to maintain stability on the Korean peninsula by finding a modus vivendi that will enable the North Korean regime to survive but reform, with a promise that its status as a pariah state may eventually be changed. The last - and perhaps most delicate - goal is to find sufficient common ground to stop nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula.
These ambitious objectives are not impossible to achieve, since North Korea's blackmail is driven by the need for survival and a desire to maximise its leverage while the US is preoccupied with Iraq. Whatever one may think of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, he is not trying to provoke a military confrontation against the US military might. Like most blackmailers, his primary concern is to get what he wants and avoid punishment.
Mr Kim wants to create the conditions for him and his regime to stay in power in North Korea. For this he needs aid to avert an impending economic collapse, and an assurance that the US is not going to destroy his regime by force. The North Korean nuclear programme might have been started to deter perceived American aggression, but it has now been turned into the key instrument for blackmailing the US to secure the regime's own survival. In other words, despite his recent moves to escalate tension, Mr Kim is desperate to do a deal with the US.
The US is also ready to compromise. The US military may indeed, as its post-Cold War defence doctrines require, be able to fight a major regional war and win while holding a strong defensive line in another major conflict until it can devote its full attention there.
However, the US military machine is reluctant to take risks or to force itself to fight two wars at the same time, and the US administration is equally unwilling - if not unable - to deal with two major crises simultaneously. The administration of President George W. Bush is therefore keen to seek a diplomatic solution while it is fully preoccupied with Iraq in the next few months.
Hence, the conditions are ripe for the Chinese to play honest broker. China not having much real influence in Pyongyang should not prevent it from succeeding. As it is in the interests of both Washington and Pyongyang to find a compromise, the odds are in Beijing's favour.
China should seek a compromise under which the North Koreans would dismantle their nuclear programme in exchange for the resumption of aid from the US - and from South Korea and Japan - and the US would commit itself not to use force against North Korea. To reassure Pyongyang, the Chinese should offer to secure American support for a UN Security Council guarantee to observe North Korea's existing borders.
China could help Pyongyang get external support for essential economic reforms that will help enable it to survive and develop in the long term.
The transformation of an evil regime that is also a source of nuclear and missile technology proliferation into a hard authoritarian regime in North Korea may not represent a triumph of human decency but it will still be a major step in the right direction. Once North Korea ceases being a country that practises nuclear blackmail and starves its own people to death, it may end its status as a pariah state.
The next step for China is to send its best diplomat, perhaps Vice-Premier Qian Qichen, as the personal representative of President Jiang Zemin to start a series of shuttle diplomacy missions between Pyongyang and Washington. Once a breakthrough has been achieved, the Chinese can then host ambassadorial-level talks in Beijing between the US and North Korea.