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Why China won’t rein in North Korea
By Todd Crowell
Global Beat Syndicate
SEATTLE—In the center of Yanji, a city near the border of North Korea in China’s northeast, one can find an underground market place. It is stocked with racks of summer dresses, shoes, television sets, DVD players and fruit stalls. The only thing unusual about this scene is the entrance.
At the front is a huge round steel door on massive hinges. It looks like it belongs to a bank vault. Pretty soon it dawns on you what this market really is a bomb shelter. The image of the Yanji market comes back to me when I reflect on how much Washington seems to be pinning its hopes on China curbing Pyongyang’s desire to possess nuclear weapons.
Speculation is growing that North Korea, which now claims to have several atomic bombs, will soon detonate one to prove that point beyond a doubt. Recently, Pyongyang announced it was removing nuclear fuel from its reactor at Yongbyon, presumably so that plutonium can be extracted for more bombs.
Most Americans think that it is self-evidently true that allowing the erratic ruler of North Korea to possess nuclear weapons would be a disaster of the first magnitude. They assume that the other countries of Asia must feel the same way, especially as they are in range of any North Korean atomic bomb and the United States is not.
Thomas Friedman of The New York Times wonders why China doesn’t quash North Korea’s nuclear designs, given that they seem to run counter to its interests: “One thing we know about China—it knows how to play hardball when it wants to, and if China played hardball that way with North Korea the proliferation threat from Pyongyang would be over.”
But the fact is that Beijing is at best ambivalent about whether North Korea develops an atomic bomb. The main reason it counsels restraint is out of fear that Washington will do something drastic, like attack North Korea’s nuclear facilities. That kind of action, however, is looking increasingly unlikely, thus China is less likely to cooperate on matters that are more feasible, such as sanctions.
Back in the 1950s, Mao Zedong began constructing bomb shelters like the one in Yanji to protect the country from nuclear attack. Today China is has much more to lose than it did during Mao’s day. But its basic attitude toward nuclear weapons is still very much rooted in the 1950s—namely that an atomic bomb is simply a very destructive weapon. Put another way it rejects the notion of a “nuclear threshold” and the idea of a weapon on an entirely different order of magnitude militarily and politically.
The Chinese make soothing noises, but nuclear nonproliferation it is not high on its list of national security priorities. What makes it important to Beijing is that Washington thinks it is important.
Defending his strategy of negotiating with Pyongyang via the six-party talks (North and South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States), President Bush has taken the position that “It’s better to have more than one voice sending the same message to Kim Jong Il.”
While Mr. Bush may think the six parties have the same message discipline as his own political message machine, the six-party talks are failing is because none of the six is “on message.” All have different, conflicting agendas.
Washington basically wants to see Kim Jong Il and his regime disappear. South Korea’s long-term goal is reconciliation, and it does not want to do anything that might make North Korea into more of a basket case than it already is. Japan wants an honest accounting for its citizens kidnapped in the 1970s.
Meantime, Beijing wants to be seen as helpful, cooperative and a good world citizen by hosting the talks. But it is not especially concerned about North Korea getting a couple of “pop-gun” atomic bombs and it certainly does not want to be put in the position of having to veto any proposed U.N. sanctions.
Indeed, ignoring repeated appeals from Washington, Beijing served notice last month that it has no intention of imposing any serious economic sanctions on its neighbor, stating that “Normal trade should not be linked with the nuclear issue.” So much for China. Back to you, Mr. Bush.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Todd Crowell is a veteran East Asia correspondent who now maintains the weblog Asia Cable at www.asiacable.blogspot.com