September 1, 2004

September 1, 2004 | Commentary on Asia

China's 'S&M' journal goes too far on Korea

China hands in Washington have been abuzz in the past week with rumors that Beijing was preparing a policy shift on North Korea. But American, Korean and Japanese policymakers shouldn't think China is on the verge of altering its unbending support for North Korea simply because recently a well-meaning Chinese economist, Wang Zhongwen, managed to publish a thoughtful piece on Beijing's misguided North Korea policies. Alas, it was not to be, although teasing the truth from the hype takes a little work.

Last week, several Korean and Japanese newspapers pointed to Wang's article entitled "A New Viewpoint to Examine the North Korea Issue and the Northeast Asian Situation" that appeared in the most recent issue, No 4 (July/August 2004), of Strategy and Management Magazine, a Chinese bimonthly diplomatic magazine. [1] "S&M" (as it is affectionately known to Washington's China experts), is considered to be an authoritative periodical that is more provocative than mainstream media, occasionally publishing articles that question government policy. It is seen as a sounding board for controversial policy prescriptions - provided that the policy hasn't already been laid down. Wang's article apparently appeared on the S&M website the week before August 20 and was translated by the US Government's Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) on August 25.

Over the top

But it was clear at first glance that Wang's views were way over the top even for those of us who truly appreciate S&M. I know, because I found myself agreeing with them - a first for me. Wang persuasively argued that the wisest thing Washington could have done in response to North Korea's nuclear weapons was - nothing.

It was entirely possible for the US to take no notice of North Korea's willful development of nuclear weapons and turn a blind eye to it, he reasoned. All the US need do was have neighboring countries or interest-related countries attach importance to it and become anxious. "What was the urgency for the United States?" he asked, "Would this not be a better strategy? And in any case, North Korean nuclear weapons cannot hit the US homeland for the time being." He suggested that, if left alone, nature would have taken its course and the Chinese government would eventually have had to confront Pyongyang and force it to abandon its weapons, if only to ensure China's own security. In fact, Wang wrote, South Korea, Japan and China are the interest-related countries that will be most affected by the North's development of nuclear weapons, not the United States, and therefore China should adhere to its diplomatic idea of non-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and support the United States and the international community in peacefully resolving the North Korea nuclear issue.

Wang suggested that in the end a nuclear North Korea would have sparked demands in Japan for nuclear arms (and, I believe, in Taiwan as well), and Beijing would have been forced to take action - even without US begging. I would agree. I have argued that the mere fact that the US opposes North Korea's nuclear ambitions is the biggest factor in China's support for North Korea. After all, it has been one year since China launched the feckless six-party talks in Beijing and announced that "the American policy towards the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea] - is the main problem we are facing", and since then, there has been precisely zero progress.

Moreover, Wang asserted as fact that "in October 2002, when holding talks with visiting US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, the DPRK explicitly admitted that it was reviving its nuclear program". This was bold! I am certain that Wang knows the official Chinese position is that Kelly "misunderstood" what the North Koreans had told him. The Chinese foreign ministry maintains public agnosticism, simply noting that "we have no knowledge of DPRK's nuclear program or its capabilities. We do not know if DPRK has a HEU [highly enriched uranium] program. According to our understanding, the Japanese are not completely aware of the situation, either." But according to The Washington Post, Chinese diplomats have said, "China did not believe North Korea had a highly enriched uranium program." [5] Despite information from Pakistan's government that Pakistani nuclear czar Dr A Q Khan provided North Korea with a "complete package", from raw uranium hexafluoride to the centrifuges to enrich it into weapons-grade fissile cores, China dismisses US concerns. By not facing up to Pyongyang's threat, Wang's article implies, Chinese diplomats are being too coy by half.

Damnation of Kim, praise for Bush

Wang's article goes on to blame the entire crisis on North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il. Wang accuses Kim of the unpardonable sin of "practicing ultra-leftist politics and political persecution in order to maintain dynastic rule". He compounds this lese majeste with the accusation that Kim will "unilaterally develop nuclear weapons heedless of whether [his] people live or die, instead of making efforts to develop the economy and improve the people's living standards." The North Korean leader's move, said Wang, "can only land the DPRK in still more difficulties and in greater isolation", and "China has already done a great deal of work ... to make the DPRK understand this point."

And in case anyone thinks Chinese scholars do not have access to the speeches of American presidents, Wang observed that "the best note on this content was President George W Bush's words when standing at the 38th Parallel in February 2002: 'No state should become a prison for its people', and 'Korean children should not go hungry when a powerful army has food'."

Bravo! Mr Wang, I thought to myself, although I had the uneasy feeling that something was amiss. Wang's article was simply too good to be true.

Recalled and Banned

And indeed it wasn't true, or it didn't last - at least not for long. For, you see, the entire Issue Four of S&M has been removed from its website [3] and, according to an email posting from one subscriber on August 27, [4] "Today, the post office contacted me to say that Issue Four was mispublished, and that it must be recalled [shouhui], otherwise they won't give me the next two issues this year ... but the post office worker was not clear about the precise details. Please, which senior person knows the reason for this?" A few minutes later, another web logger, or blogger, on the S&M website wrote, "In fact, it wasn't mispublished, I suspect that it carried an article that was too sensitive. It is not appropriate for the normal man in the street to know too much, I guess it was the North Korea article."

What could have precipitated the drastic measure of recalling a publication from subscribers' mailboxes? The previous day, a suspiciously well-written polemic blast at Wang's article was posted on the S&M website; it was entitled "Some of our Intellectual Elites Advocate Selling North Korea Down the River" [5]. It said the United States is China's traditional enemy, North Korea is China's friend, and anyone that suggests otherwise is "even more corrupt that the Qing government of over a century ago".

It is important on this first anniversary of the Beijing six-party talks aimed at defusing Pyongyang's nuclear program that US policymakers who have seen Wang's article not get their hopes up. Wang's piece was simply an abortive effort by moderates in China's foreign policy community to inject some realism into Beijing's support for Pyongyang - only to be slapped down firmly by the hardline Chinese Propaganda Ministry, which alone has authority to recall publications that already have been distributed. China's propaganda apparatus and national security agencies are firmly in the hands of China's military commander-in-chief Jiang Zemin and his "Shanghai Faction", and as long as they are in charge, voices of reason and moderation like Wang's will have no place in Beijing's national security policy debates.

Footnotes:

[1] Wang Zhongwen, Yi Xin Shijiao Shenshi Chaoxian Wenti Yu Dongbeiya Xingshi, "Examining the DPRK Issue and Northeast Asian Situation from a New Viewpoint", Beijing, Zhanlue Yu Guanli, [Strategy and Management], Issue Four, July-August, 2004, pp 92-94.

[2] Glenn Kessler, Chinese Not Convinced of North Korean Uranium Effort, The Washington Post, January 7, 2004; Page A16, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A60332-2004Jan6.html.

[3] Strategy and Management Magazine at http://www.zlygl.com/.

[4] Strategy and Management Magazine web page at http://www.zlygl.com/forum_view.asp?forum_id=1&view_id=90 .

[5] Strategy and Management Magazine web page at http://www.zlygl.com/forum_view.asp?forum_id=8&view_id=88.

John J Tkacik Jr, is a research fellow in Asian Studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. He is a retired officer in the US Foreign Service who served in Taipei, Beijing, Hong Kong and Guangzhou and was chief of the China Division in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

About the Author

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

First appeared in The Asian Times