December 27, 2002

December 27, 2002 | Commentary on Asia

China Must Pressure Pyongyang

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 leadership.

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 in."

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 time.

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 machine.

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.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Asia

Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal