Why China Should Rethink Its Approach to North Korea
Jing-Dong Yuan (Senior Research Associate, Monterey Institute of International Studies)
(This article originally appeared in the May 29, 2003 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher)
During the upcoming summit between President Hu Jintao and US President George W. Bush in France, the North Korean nuclear issue will be high on the agenda. Mr Bush is expected to press Mr Hu for a more unequivocal position. Indeed, it may be high time that China seriously considered some policy adjustments, and for good reason.
North Korea's admission during the talks with the United States and China last month that is has nuclear weapons was a slap in the face for China. While the Chinese emphasised the positive aspects of the talks, there is no denying that North Korea's bellicose pressure tactics have further complicated the nuclear stalemate and only strengthened the hands of those in the US who advocate an "Iraqi solution".
These unwelcome developments, if unchecked, have the potential to seriously undermine China's fundamental security interests in a stable, nuclear-free Korean peninsula. They also raise questions about the efficacy, as well as the very assumptions, of China's North Korean policy.
China has been chastised for being over-cautious. Its reactions to the nuclear crisis have confounded and frustrated US officials and North Korea watchers alike. China voted for the International Atomic Energy Agency Board's resolution to report North Korea's breach of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to the United Nations Security Council. But it blocked, together with Russia, a security council resolution on North Korea last month. It cut off oil supplies to North Korea for three days in February, but stops short of publicly criticising Kim Jong-il's regime.
China's policy has been based on a number of core assumptions. First, China regards North Korea as an important security buffer and considers it critical that North Korea survive as a viable state. That explains its insistence that the issue be resolved through peaceful means, and its opposition to economic sanctions. China pays equal attention to the potential fallout of continued provocation from North Korea. The Chinese leadership is deeply worried about the potential domino effect of an ever-escalating North Korean nuclear crisis, specifically, Japan's possible reconsideration of its nuclear policy.
Perhaps one of the most important elements influencing China's approach is the potential impact on Sino-US relations. China wants to maintain a stable bilateral relationship that serves its interests. Both countries share a common interest in maintaining a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. However, their endgames for North Korea are different. For China, the best outcome is for a non-nuclear regime to survive; for the US, nuclear disarmament is the fundamental issue - something that it believes can only be achieved by regime change.
China needs to re-evaluate its strategy and the very assumptions that underlie it. First is the premium it is paying in continued support of the North Korean regime, which is fast becoming a liability for China.
North Korea's Taepodong missile test provided the justification for Japan's participation in research into joint theatre missile defence with the US and the development and launch of its own reconnaissance satellites.
Second, a prolonged stalemate could have a potential domino effect on Japan, South Korea or even Taiwan, as North Korea's nuclear threats prompt them to also go nuclear. If the crisis remains unresolved, the US could launch military strikes, leading to thousands of refugees flooding into China, and the prospect of a US military presence up to the Yalu River.
Third, China's equivocation in its policy may leave room for North Korea to continue its bellicosity towards the US - at the expense of Chinese interests. China should clearly convey to North Korea that while it respects its security concerns, it must also take China's security concerns into consideration. China would continue to support a peaceful solution to the nuclear crisis, but North Korea must limit its demands to realistic possibilities. China could even take the initiative in seeking a multilateral security guarantee for North Korea, in exchange for it ending the nuclear stalemate.
Handling the North Korean nuclear issue has been a significant challenge for China's new leadership. China must display its confidence as a rising power capable of playing a prominent role in regional and global affairs. While stability and nuclear-free status on the Korean peninsula must remain the goal, China may need to look for alternative approaches. And the meeting between Mr Bush and Mr Hu may set the stage.