February 22, 2005

February 22, 2005 | Commentary on Asia

China Is Using North Korea As Leverage

Beijing's low-key reaction to Pyongyang's recent revelation that it has "manufactured nukes for self-defense" is striking evidence that Chinese leaders -- if not lower-level academics and junior diplomats -- prize North Korea's nuclear ambitions for the leverage it gives them in Washington. They also seem to care little about their stated goal of a "denuclearized" Korean peninsula.

More than a week after North Korea's Feb. 10 bombshell, the Chinese foreign ministry is still confining itself to comments such as it is "studying the situation" and urging all sides to be "sincere" and "patient." At a press briefing last Thursday a Foreign Ministry spokesman insisted that, "just having the six-party talks in itself is tremendous progress." That comment came after several reporters bluntly pointed out that two years of the talks -- which bring together the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan -- hadn't resulted in any progress.

The main reason American negotiators still cling to the hope that China will do some arm twisting in Pyongyang is because the Chinese diplomats they deal with seem genuinely at their wits end with the Koreans. American negotiators sense sympathy in their Chinese counterparts. But it is also becoming clear that neither the Foreign Ministry nor its think-tank advisers are driving Beijing's policy toward North Korea. That role is reserved for the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. And the Politburo Standing Committee is desperate to keep the six-party talks going primarily because it enhances China's clout in Washington rather than out of any genuine concern over Pyongyang's nuclear antics. They see little downside to an already self-declared nuclear North Korea.

That's why it's unrealistic to place much hope in Wang Jiarui's visit to Pyongyang, which began Saturday. Mr. Wang, the head of the Communist Party's international liaison department, is Beijing's equivalent of a Korea expert. He helped organize a 2001 visit to Pyongyang by then-junior Politburo member Zeng Qinghong -- now China's vice president and a powerful rival to President Hu Jintao. Mr. Wang also greeted Kim Jong Il last April as the North Korean leader's armored train crossed the border into China, and he later participated in Kim's summits with Chinese leaders.

But the Foreign Ministry has been evasive on how prominently the nuclear issue would figure during Mr. Wang's visit, and North Korea is not a country that fits neatly into the Chinese foreign-policy bureaucracy. As a fraternal socialist nation, Beijing's ties with Pyongyang are primarily the province of the Chinese Communist Party apparatus -- not the Foreign Ministry. Chinese academics and professional diplomats frequently criticize Beijing's North Korea policies in private, and complain that there's nothing they can do. The policies come down from the top levels of the leadership, which does not tolerate any deviation from them.

North Korea is taboo in the press, and academic journals that delve into it are quickly censored or worse. Beijing has never permitted any of its media organs to raise doubts about North Korea's nuclear-weapons program, and last year shut down the popular international-affairs journal "Strategy and Management" after it dared to do so. And the Web site of another publication, "World Affairs," disappeared from the Internet shortly after an article in its January issue expressed some mild questions about China's unquestioning support for Pyongyang.

Other publications are known to have been closed on President Hu's direct instructions, and there's good reason to believe this is true in this case as well. According to Open Magazine, a popular China-watching journal, President Hu last September directed the Central Propaganda Ministry to issue a lengthy injunction against any criticism of the North Korean regime. He was reported as saying that, "despite facing temporary economic difficulties, politically [North] Korea has been consistently correct."

There's also considerable circumstantial evidence that Beijing and Pyongyang have been coordinating their policies on the nuclear issue behind the scenes. Four days before the April 2003 three-party talks -- which preceded the six-party talks and brought together North Korea, the U.S. and China -- Pyongyang's senior military leader, Colonel Gen. Jo Myong Rok, visited Beijing for talks with Chinese leaders.

Similarly, shortly before the first round of six-party talks in August 2003, Beijing dispatched Gen. Xu Caihou, head of the People's Liberation Army General Political Department, to Pyongyang for consultations. When that round ended with a North Korean envoy threatening that Pyongyang would carry out a nuclear test, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who hosted the talks, tried to pin the blame on the U.S. "The American policy towards DPRK -- this is the main problem we are facing," Mr. Wang told reporters in Manila three days later, referring to North Korea by its official title of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The February 2004 second round of talks was again preceded by behind the scenes discussions between China and North Korea, this time in the form of a January 2004 visit to Pyongyang by Wang Jiarui. Neither this, nor last June's third round, yielded anything other than yet more North Korean threats.

Yet, on all of these occasions, China chose to remain silent in the face of Pyongyang's disruptive tactics. That suggests China was not unhappy with the lack of progress and that Beijing's main interest is in continuing the talks indefinitely, so maximizing the leverage this gives it over the Bush administration. As the Foreign Ministry spokesman insisted last week -- "just having talks is tremendous progress." It's the ultimate triumph of process over results.

No doubt, after much wringing of hands, Beijing will eventually "persuade" Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table. But it is a certainty that there will be no progress at the six-party talks, however long they last, because it's not in Beijing's interests to see the process come to an end. China probably reckons that, if it can string the talks out for long enough, at some point the U.S. will realize that it has already accepted North Korea as a de facto nuclear-weapon state and everyone can move on.

If the Bush administration wants to avoid such an outcome, it must face up to the fact that Beijing is more interested in maximizing its leverage than achieving results at the six-party talks. Recognizing the existence of a problem is the first step to finding a solution.

John Tkacik is research fellow for China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the Heritage Foundation, Washington.

About the Author

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

First appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal