China is the only country in the world with
any significant leverage over Pyongyang. No other nation has the
ability to exert such an influence over North Korea's economy as
Beijing, through its control of transportation links and food and
energy imports into the impoverished nation.
No other country has almost complete control over how much fuel
North Korea's military can receive. Nor does any other country have
a million soldiers within 500 miles of the Korean border. And no
other country has such regular contacts with the Pyongyang
Yet as Kim Jong Il escalates nuclear tensions on the Korean
peninsula to crisis level, following the decision to resume
operations at the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, there are few
signs that Beijing is prepared to use this leverage to rein in
North Korea's dangerous behavior. Instead China seems to be acting
more like Pyongyang's nuclear enabler.
In recent days, Pyongyang has removed the seals from four sites at
Yongbyon, including cooling ponds that house spent fuel rods. North
Korea has also sent technicians into a reactor at the nuclear
complex, as the first step to reactivating it. On Sunday, the
International Atomic Energy Agency warned that "the Democratic
People's Republic of Korea's action is of great nonproliferation
concern and represents a further disruption of the IAEA's ability
to apply safeguards."
There is no use for these spent fuel rods other than to recover the
weapons-grade plutonium they contain. And since North Korea lacks a
functioning nuclear power reactor, let alone one capable of using
plutonium as fuel, the intention behind this behavior is clearly
weapons rather than energy related.
China has said little in public about these worrying developments,
beyond a Wednesday statement from its foreign ministry urging that
the issue be resolved through dialogue. There have been some
suggestions that Beijing is contemplating putting more pressure on
its errant neighbor. According to a story in this week's issue of
Time magazine, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi submitted a
memorandum to the Politburo in October describing North Korea's
behavior as "diplomatic adventurism." Time also reported that
foreign ministry bureaucrats in November "suggested cutting energy
and food aid, and even opening the border to let more refugees
But that report is doubted by many in Washington, where no one in
the Bush administration has been told this by Beijing, either
officially or unofficially. Nor do U.S. intelligence agencies seem
to have gathered any information along these lines. Instead
Washington insiders say that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard
Armitage returned empty handed from a visit to Beijing two weeks
ago, where he unsuccessfully sought to persuade Chinese leaders to
pressure Pyongyang to end its nuclear adventurism.
That does nothing to quell the growing anxiety within the Bush
administration. The consistently irrational behavior of Pyongyang's
leaders heightens worries that Kim does not know when to stop.
Despite U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's warning earlier
this week that America is quite "capable of fighting two major
regional foreign conflicts," conventional wisdom remains that the
Bush administration will not try to deal with more than one at a
But although the Bush administration remains focused on Iraq, few
are sanguine that the North Korean crisis will await a victory in
the Persian Gulf before blowing up altogether. That is why a
preemptive air strike against the Yongbyon complex, as contemplated
by former U.S. President Bill Clinton before Pyongyang agreed to
freeze its nuclear activities in 1994, remains a possibility.
Washington is sure to have signaled as much to Beijing in the ten
weeks since North Korea sowed the seeds for the present crisis,
with its Oct. 4 admission of a secret uranium-enrichment project.
But all the signs are that Beijing has not softened in its
opposition to any Osirak-type air strikes against the North. Iraq's
nuclear weapons program was set back 10 years when Israel destroyed
the Osirak reactor in 1981.
While China continues to oppose the use of military force to end
the crisis over North Korea's nuclear programs, there is mounting
frustration at the White House, U.S. State Department and the
Pentagon that Beijing appears equally unwilling to put any pressure
of its own on Pyongyang.
According to South Korean estimates, China provides North Korea
with almost 40% of its total food needs. Estimates from the U.S.
Department of Energy also suggest that China is the only country
still willing to sell oil to Pyongyang. It supplied 88% of North
Korea's oil imports this year. And that figure is likely to rise to
100% in 2003, following the recent suspension of the free oil
shipments by the Korean Economic Development Organization that were
part of the 1994 agreement under which Pyongyang was supposed to
have frozen its nuclear program.
In addition to these paid imports, Beijing agreed in 1996 to
provide the North Korea free of charge with 1.3 million tons of oil
and a further 2.5 million tons of coal, all free of charge. Since
North Korea does not use oil extensively in energy production, 94%
of this oil is used for motor vehicles. And since there are few
civilian cars on the roads in this impoverished state, that means
the bulk of China's oil supplies are fueling North Korea's military
Earlier this month, State Department Director of Policy Planning
Richard Haass noted that China's handling of the North Korean
nuclear issue would have a strong impact on Beijing's ties with
Washington; "China's actions in the months and years ahead will
tell us much about whether we are in a position to deepen our
partnership. These issues include, most notably, nonproliferation;
ensuring that North Korea complies with its commitments; China's
rhetoric and actions toward Taiwan; and the underlying principles
that guide China's foreign policy."
Beijing's continued failure to put real pressure on Pyongyang can
only suggest it is tacitly conniving in North Korea's nuclear
ambitions, notwithstanding China's public statements to the
contrary. And for as long as this remains the case, the deeper
partnership with the U.S., to which Mr. Haass referred, is likely
to remain unattainable.
John J. Tkacik,
Jr., a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in
Washington, served in the U.S. foreign service in Beijing,
Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.