From the beginning
of the North Korean affaire nucleaire in 1993, China's
devout wish has been that North Korea might bluster about having
the bomb-and allow the world to suspect it had one-without actually
testing one and removing all doubt. North Korea could leverage that
ambiguity for international aid, while China could act as an honest
broker and still claim to be concerned about nuclear proliferation.
Following North Korea's claimed nuclear test, China's diplomatic
rhetoric is changing, and its policy may be, too. The United States
should press Beijing to join in supporting tough sanctions on
past decade, Beijing's consistent posture has been to withhold
criticism of North Korea and to blame North Korea's ills on the
United States. "America's policies toward North Korea, this is the
main problem we are facing," Ambassador Wang Yi told the press
after the first round of the Six-Party Talks in Beijing in August
In September 2005,
under intense Chinese pressure, the Bush Administration went so far
as to declare that it would "respect" North Korea's "right" to
light water nuclear reactors in the infamous "Statement of
Principles." The Chinese were ruthless. A senior U.S. official told
the New York Times, "At one point they told us that we were
totally isolated on this…. [T]hey would go to the press" and
blame the United States for wrecking the talks.
Chinese diplomats and academics still insist that the U.S. lift
financial sanctions on North Korea, despite the country's extensive
counterfeiting, narcotics, and money-laundering operations, in
order to lure Pyongyang back to the Talks.
But all this isn't
enough for North Korea. When China was pressured to join a U.N.
resolution condemning North Korea's July Fourth 2006 missile tests,
North Korea responded, "Only the strong can defend justice in the
world today where the jungle law prevails. Neither the U.N. nor
anyone else [i.e., China] can protect us."
Pyongyang's "Protector" Still?
protect a nuclear rogue? On October 5, as Pyongyang's
pronouncements made it clear that Dear Leader Kim Jong Il would
really test a nuclear device, John Bolton, the U.S. Ambassador to
the U.N., chided Beijing for its client-state's behavior. Bolton
told reporters, "We will find out…this afternoon what North
Korea's protectors on the Council are going to do," to which his
Chinese counterpart, Ambassador Wang Guangya, retorted, "On this
issue, everybody is unanimous.... No one is going to protect
since the test has a new tenor of alarm unlike anything heard
heretofore. Beijing admits that Pyongyang's October 9 nuclear test
has had a "negative impact" ("fumiande yinxiang") on
relations across the Yalu River. Pyongyang's bomb test was
"hanran"-which is not just "flagrant," as the English
translation puts it, but "stubbornly defiant." When Ambassador
Bolton left a Security Council meeting October 9, he observed with
satisfaction, "I didn't see any protectors of North Korea in that
room this morning."
reporters the next day, Ambassador Wang admitted that a "firm,
constructive, appropriate but prudent response" to North Korea was
needed and added, "I think there has to be some punitive
Was Wang merely telling his U.S.
audience what it wanted to hear, or was he announcing a change in
China's policy? Just a few hours earlier, Beijing had said China
favored "positive and appropriate measures" rather than "the
negative issue of punishment."
The fact that the
"hanran" statement ran on the front page of People's
Daily was itself a diplomatic victory for Washington.
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Jianchao was unusually frank
in his October 10 press briefing. In response to questions from
foreign journalists, he repeated that the nuclear test-"the way it
was done"-had "a negative impact on China-North Korea relations"
and that "massive differences" had emerged between China and North
Korea on the matter.
Holds the High Ground
The United States
now occupies the negotiating high ground, and Ambassador Bolton
must take advantage of it. China will still argue that relentless
American financial pressures on North Korea have pushed Pyongyang
to the wall. "The only way" to address the current crisis, the
Chinese will say, "is through dialogue and consultation" via the
"All sides must evince clear flexibility," said Foreign Ministry
Spokesman Liu, adding that the "number one" priority is
"denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula…and stability and peace
in Northeast Asia," as if a nuclear North Korea were not the
primary source of instability and hostility in the region.
Testy wording is
one thing, but the real test of China's willingness to be a
responsible stakeholder in Northeast Asian stability will be its
actions. The United States has submitted a draft resolution to the
U.N. Security Council that, among other things, calls on all member
states "to undertake and facilitate inspection of cargo to or from
the DPRK" in order to prevent the trafficking of dangerous weapons.
The draft also calls for "freezing any financial or other assets or
resources" related to "illicit activities…related to
counterfeiting, money-laundering or narcotics."
These sanctions will have real teeth as U.S. naval, intelligence,
and financial agencies track suspicious transactions and make them
known to foreign governments.
The U.S. Mission
to the U.N. must press China to accept this strong language and be
prepared to hold China (and Russia and others) accountable for its
The new and mature
tenor of China's diplomatic rhetoric may signal a real change in
Beijing's policies on North Korea-or it may reflect a Chinese
tactic of "soft on the outside" but "hard on the inside"
when engaging Washington. How receptive Beijing is to the U.S. call
for enforceable sanctions on North Korea will reveal how serious
China really is about being a responsible stakeholder.
John J. Tkacik,
Jr., is Senior Research Fellow in China Policy in the
Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.
Agence France-Presse, "China blames US for the impasse in talks
with N Korea," Taipei Times
, September 2, 2004, p. 6, at