August 4, 2003

August 4, 2003 | Commentary on Asia

Peking Ducks

"The Chinese have been very helpful in this North Korea problem," a senior administration official assured me earlier this week. Then he paused and thought for a minute. "Well . . . strike 'very,'" he hedged.

The steady stream of Chinese vice foreign ministers passing through Washington over the past three weeks said all the right things in private. China is "adamantly opposed" to the nuclearization of the Korean peninsula, they declared. The problem, said one administration official, is that "they haven't done anything."

The administration is torn between trying to keep the Chinese "in the process" by pushing Beijing to host talks with Pyongyang, and venting frustration with Beijing for basically taking Pyongyang's side in the talks. As the Americans know, Chinese envoys warn Pyongyang that "those Americans are just crazy enough to do something drastic"--a message some in Washington consider helpful.

The Chinese, however, have resisted any appearance of disloyalty to their North Korean comrades. On July 18, Chinese vice foreign minister Dai Bingguo spent the entire day closeted with Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. He spent more than two and a half hours with Powell convincing the American side not to push for multilateral talks with the North Koreans, especially if they include the Japanese.

This is understandable. The Chinese are not keen on being outvoted in any five-power talks, and have lobbied heavily to keep Washington's contacts with Pyongyang strictly within Beijing's ambit. Last week, the Chinese declared to the South Koreans that they agree with North Korea's stance: "North Korea considers it illogical to see Japan, which has invaded the Korean peninsula and colonized it, getting involved in the Korean peninsula affairs." In Washington, however, neither Dai nor Chinese vice foreign minister Wang Yi tried to rule out Japanese participation; each promised "to relay your position to Beijing."

To Powell's credit, he remained unpersuaded by Dai's repeated suggestions to just move to the "next step"--another United States-China-North Korea session without preconditions. "The American position remains: Any three-party session must be followed immediately--within 24 hours--by a five-party session," one State Department official says.

An example of how desperate the Chinese are to avoid five-power talks came in early July. Wang arrived in Washington for the first hand-wringing session on North Korea. It just so happened that Wang's counterparts, South Korean deputy foreign minister Lee Soo-Hyuck and Mitoji Yabunaka, director general of the Japanese foreign ministry's Asian office, were in town for similar talks with Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly. Kelly invited all four to a confidential dinner. Vice Minister Wang refused. "He didn't just say no," said one administration source, "he said 'hell no.'" News of such a meeting would surely leak, Wang reasoned, and China would seem to be conspiring against Pyongyang.

Instead, Beijing is signaling to Washington that it intends to remain firmly on Pyongyang's side. While two Chinese vice ministers shuttled between Washington, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Moscow, wringing their hands and urging that the United States not give up on a peaceful settlement of the North Korean crisis, China's political leaders had only nice things to say about China-North Korea ties.

On July 11, the 42nd anniversary of the Sino-Korean alliance, a vice chair of China's parliament declared that the governments of China and the Korean People's Democratic Republic (DPRK) have "pushed ahead with their cause of socialist construction" and "made important contributions to defending the peace and stability of China and Korea and, furthermore, the rest of the world, closely cooperating with each other in the international arena." Yikes!

After that, the Chinese ambassador in Pyongyang gushed that "the party, the army, and the people of the DPRK single-heartedly rallied around leader Kim Jong Il and are making a dynamic advance despite all difficulties." To ease those "difficulties," the Chinese government "donated" 10,000 tons of diesel oil to the DPRK--hardly the action of a country that wanted to rein in North Korea's reckless nuclear ambitions.

Indeed, Beijing doesn't seem that worried about North Korea's bomb. When news came in July that North Korea might finally test a nuclear device at its upcoming National Day on September 9, the most a Chinese official would tell a Reuters reporter was, "China is opposed to the testing of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula"--and he asked not to be identified. For China, it's better if Pyongyang brags about nuclear weapons and lets everyone think it poses a dire threat than to blow up a bomb and remove all doubt. Of course, the Chinese would have a much harder time in the U.N. Security Council defending North Korea's behavior if there were absolute proof of a Pyongyang bomb. So they ignore the evidence.

As far as the Chinese media are concerned, it's all American propaganda. Over the past week, Beijing's People's Daily reported to its 3 million Chinese readers that "Russia sees no clear evidence DPRK has nuclear weapon" and "South Koreans believe DPRK has not completed nuclear fuel reprocessing." China's official media do not tell the Chinese people what their own intelligence believes. The Wall Street Journal reported on July 18 that "Chinese intelligence services have concluded in recent weeks that North Korea is producing weapons-grade plutonium in sufficient quantities and has all the necessary components to assemble nuclear-tipped missiles."

The Bush administration is firm that talks with North Korea must be multilateral. North Korea's nuclear weapons program threatens all North Korea's neighbors--but particularly Japan. It violates several international obligations and commitments, and the nations most affected must also have a say in talks: South Korea, which signed the North-South Korean Denuclearization Agreement in 1991; Japan, which has given billions in economic aid to Pyongyang; and Russia, which sold nuclear reactors to the DPRK on condition that it observe International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. Finally, in the infamous "pull-aside" following the April 23 talks in Beijing, the North Koreans demanded that Washington guarantee diplomatic recognition and more economic aid from Japan. Clearly, Japan must be a party to the talks--that's nonnegotiable. But there is one other factor. The North Koreans are abusive and threatening negotiators, and the Americans want witnesses from other capitals--Beijing, for one--to observe and moderate this behavior.

Beijing, however, hasn't bought in. At bottom, China is less opposed to North Korea's nuclear weapons than it is to American attempts to force Pyongyang to disarm. China's policy seems to be, "If the North Koreans can gain even more economic and energy concessions from the West without actually having to do anything in return, more power to them." China opposes even the threat of force to get Pyongyang to give up its weapons, and this is the conundrum for American policymakers. China has a stranglehold on North Korea's economy, and can deny Pyongyang's armies gasoline with the turn of a spigot.

But China is not inclined to use its leverage unless there is a clear move by the United States and affected allies to bring economic pressure and even military force to bear on Pyongyang. At least four times in the past six months, China and Russia blocked moves in the U.N. Security Council to condemn North Korea--even after the IAEA referred Pyongyang's threatening posture to the Security Council, and even after IAEA director general Mohammed ElBaradei declared on Friday, July 18, that in his view, "the situation in the DPRK is currently the most immediate and most serious threat to the nuclear nonproliferation regime."

Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John R. Bolton visits Beijing and other Asian capitals this week to keep the pressure on China. In his department, Bolton is the least amenable to humoring Chinese anxieties over North Korea, yet he is the one most sensitive to a frustrating paradox: If the administration hopes to end the North Korean nuclear confrontation without bloodshed, China must be pushed to act. But China will not act until it sees that a tragedy is imminent. Until then, the administration may want to admit that, in fact, the Chinese have not been very helpful after all.

John Tkacik is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation

About the Author

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

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