December 2, 2002

December 2, 2002 | Commentary on Asia

ED120202:  China's Korean Conundrum

North Korea's once-secret nuclear-weapons program, not Taiwan or Iraq or the war on terror, will be Chinese leader Jiang Zemin's first real foreign-policy test following his successful retention of paramount power in Beijing at last month's Communist Party Congress. But it is a test that confronts the Chinese leader with unpalatable options. In the end, using economic clout to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear aspirations may be Mr. Jiang's only real choice.

Mr. Jiang is the only world leader who holds any sway over North Korea. Over 88% of all North Korean oil comes from China (the rest comes in aid from the West) as does more than 90% of North Korea's non-aid food imports. Yet despite Mr. Jiang's obvious frustrations with Pyongyang's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il, he cannot bring himself to wade into the deepening North Korean nuclear crisis.

The late Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac would have understood Mr. Jiang's dilemma. In 1952, the French writer explained that he loved Germany so much, he wanted two of them. Likewise, Mr. Jiang loves Korea very much. The collapse of the Pyongyang regime would quickly result in a unified peninsula of 60 million Koreans with a world-class heavy industrial base, advanced technology, wealth, a massive military machine (with who knows how many nuclear devices) and an irredentist claim on nearly 18,000 square miles of China's Changbai Mountain region, which is regarded as the birthplace of the Korean race.

Back in 1994, as North Korea's economy went into a free fall and whole provinces sank into starvation, Beijing was terrified that North Korea would implode. Chinese leaders feared hundreds of thousands of refugees would stream into Manchuria, and that eventually China would have an assertive unified Korean nation poised on its northeast border like the unified Germany that appeared in Europe after the collapse of communism there. A "soft landing" for North Korea became China's strategic imperative.

China quietly urged North Korea to leverage its nuclear weapons program to get food and energy aid from the West. The strategy worked. After months of testy negotiations with then U.S. President Bill Clinton and his South Korean, Japanese and European counterparts, Pyongyang managed to extract a pledge for a foreign-built light-water nuclear power plant (to replace the one North Korea's nuclear weapons engineers were supposedly building), and an annual tribute of 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil each year until the power plant came on stream. Under this Framework Agreement, the North Koreans would "freeze" their nuclear weapons efforts in return. Over the following eight years, North Korea emerged as America's largest foreign-aid recipient in Asia, and the United Nations' World Food Program's third largest food aid destination.

But Pyongyang overplayed its hand. On Oct. 3, an envoy from President George W. Bush confronted his North Korean hosts with charges that they had violated the Framework Agreement by conducting extensive secret nuclear-weapons research. The Americans had detailed intelligence reports that Pyongyang had purchased $75 million dollars in uranium-enrichment technology and equipment from Pakistan -- information that probably was provided grudgingly by the Pakistani government. After initially rejecting the charges, North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kang Sok Joo on Oct. 4 bluntly admitted the existence of North Korea's ongoing nuclear-weapons development.

Ten days later in Beijing, U.S. Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton presented the evidence to Chinese officials, who professed surprise. Mr. Bolton prodded the Chinese to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear-weapons program, but the Chinese were noncommittal. The State Department said Bolton was in Beijing "to confer with friends" about the issue, and called it "an opportunity for peace-loving nations in the region to deal, effectively, with this challenge." But the friendly Chinese were not yet up to the challenge. At President Jiang's summit with President Bush in Texas the following week, Mr. Jiang insisted, "We are completely in the dark as to the recent development."

Most in Washington's intelligence community doubt China was "completely in the dark." They indicate that Dr. A.Q. Khan, who runs Pakistan's nuclear-weapons labs, would never have sold uranium-enrichment equipment or technology to North Korea without notifying his Chinese counterparts. The equipment and technology, after all, came from China, and over the years China has been Mr. Khan's primary supplier of nuclear-weapons assistance. The Pakistani Air Force C-130s carrying the nuclear cargo that flew over China needed Chinese airspace clearances. And the $75 million that North Korea paid Mr. Khan for weapons aid was apparently channeled through Chinese banks.

Moreover, China itself has an extensive intelligence network monitoring North Korea and debriefing North Korean refugees and defectors. Last month, Japan's Sankei Shimbun released a story that Chinese intelligence debriefed a female nuclear researcher from North Korea's "304 Laboratory" before sending her on to a "third country." In 1999, the Chinese learned from a runaway North Korean soldier that North Korea had a secret underground uranium-enrichment facility in Mt. Chonma near the Chinese border. But rather than let the soldier move on to the safety of a third country, the Chinese returned him to North Korea.

One senior nonproliferation official in Washington says privately that Beijing is "more frustrated that the North Koreans admitted that they had a weapons program than they were about the program itself." Of course, this incomprehensible honesty is just the latest Pyongyang tack to frustrate Beijing. The Chinese were equally shocked at Kim Jong Il's candor on Japanese kidnap victims, which triggered universal revulsion in Japan. Two months ago, the Chinese arrested the Chinese-Dutch president of North Korea's Potemkin-like "Sinuiju Special Administrative Region" on tax-evasion and corruption charges and indicated they had warned Pyongyang not to hire the man for the real-estate project that abuts the Chinese border. In 1998, North Korea's long-range missile tests enraged Japan, alarmed the U.S. and discouraged the previously supportive international community.

With Kim Jong Il's self-imposed three-year moratorium on long-range missile testing coming to an end, even moderate Japanese officials are expressing a new-found warmth for theater missile defense. Some officials in Washington suggest that the only effective anti-ballistic-missile system in the near future is a nuclear-tipped one, and wonder if the United States would be able, or even willing, to discourage a Japanese reassessment of a nuclear ABM option.

This highlights the dilemma for Beijing. China's reluctance to antagonize the tetchy North Koreans, now that their duplicity is a matter of international record, will likely deepen Pyongyang's isolation and hasten its collapse. If North Korea is to be talked down from its precipice, China must get engaged. Japan appears prepared to sustain a tough line, the European Union now backs the oil suspension and a new South Korean government, possibly under the conservative Lee Hoi-chang, will be less solicitous of Pyongyang than Kim Dae Jung's. But none has real leverage with Kim Jong Il. Only China has that.

Unfortunately, Beijing sees its strategic interest in continuing to prop up the increasingly isolated and enigmatic Pyongyang regime. For this reason, President Jiang will probably continue to send North Korea the food and energy aid that keeps the Stalinist dynasty afloat regardless of whether North Korea disarms. It may keep the Korean peninsula divided for a time, but it will cost China money and prestige. It also holds long-term risks for China as its Asian neighbors abandon engagement with North Korea in favor of alternatives.

If the U.S. cannot reach its goal of complete, immediate and transparent North Korean disarmament, the only peaceful alternative is a crash program to develop a regional ballistic-missile defense with Japan, Korea and whomever else might also feel threatened. If Beijing shrinks from using its sway on Pyongyang, China risks a major policy break with the U.S. and may wind up with a re-militarized Japan and a ring of suspicious neighbors in the Western Pacific.

John J. Tkacik, Jr., a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org) 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.