North Korea is a potemkin country. It has an airport without airplanes, roads without cars, and streets without street signs. It was dark and dismal a decade ago when I visited. Today it is a country of desperation.
But even a potemkin country can develop nuclear weapons. So the Bush administration, focused on Iraq and lacking a simple means to deter Pyongyang from an atomic path, is hoping China will pressure the North. Indeed, there was a collective sigh of relief in Washington at the news that China had apparently brokered three-way talks in Beijing, held last week.
It was premature to declare victory for the administration’s hard line, however, since Washington, too, made concessions, such as leaving South Korea and Japan outside the meeting. Moreover, Washington dropped its precondition that the DPRK dismantle its uranium enrichment program, the very initiative that touched off the present crisis, before talking.
And Pyongyang’s willingness to sit down with the U.S., though theoretically positive, merely provided a forum in which to announce that it might test a weapon or export plutonium, depending upon Washington’s actions. China’s position was to simply encourage dialogue. There certainly is no reason to believe that the North is ready to accept an enforceable agreement that includes dismantlement of the DPRK’s existing facilities and inspections to prevent any future operations. Achieving that goal will almost certainly require more from Beijing than a push for talks. And the PRC will be tough on the North only if the U.S. demonstrates that doing so advances Chinese interests.
A half century ago the newly established People’s Republic of China saved the DPRK from defeat in the Korean War. The resulting relationship has been called one of blood and as close as lips to teeth.
The PRC is the North’s largest trading partner, with two-way trade amounting to $740 million, one fourth of Pyongyang’s total. China also continues to provide some aid to North Korea, though the former cut back its subsidized grain shipments in 1995. As of 2002, Beijing accounted for about 70 percent of the North’s oil supplies and had doubled grain and vegetable sales.
But the relationship between the two countries has declined over the last decade. Tensions flared between the governments last fall when the PRC arrested Chinese businessman Yang Bin, tapped by Pyongyang to head the North Korean economic development zone in the northwest at Sinuiju.
Moreover, despite the North’s strenuous objections China recognized the South in 1992 and has since developed a strong relationship with Seoul. Beijing now has much at stake with its relationship with South Korea. Two-way trade exceeds $30 billion and annual South Korean investment in the PRC has run as high as $900 million, challenging America as the first place overseas destination of ROK capital.
Nevertheless, Beijing could play the most important role in dissuading the North from its nuclear course. H. D. S. Greenway of the Boston Globe advocates building on “the new climate of U.S.-Chinese cooperation of late.”
And Washington has sought Beijing’s help. Without great success so far, however. After his recent visit to the PRC, Secretary of State Colin Powell delicately observed that the Chinese “prefer to play their role quietly” — very quietly, it would seem.
Although Beijing has not likely, as some claim, encouraged Pyongyang to create the current crisis, it is doing little, despite its protestations to the contrary, to help resolve the controversy.
Yet there are good reasons for Beijing to be disinclined to solve what is widely seen as primarily America’s problem. China obviously has little to fear directly from the prospect of a nuclear DPRK.
Moreover, the PRC, like South Korea, fears a North Korean collapse: millions of refugees swarming north, civil and military strife flowing over its borders, American influence extending to the Yalu. Thus, Beijing has backed Pyongyang in attempting to stem the flow of refugees.
China also seems to lack the North’s full trust, even if it could apply significant economic pressure. And the price of attempting to coerce the DPRK would be to permanently poison the PRC’s relationship with Pyongyang.
Most important, China is suspicious of Washington’s apparent determination to remain the dominant power along its borders, and promote, in fact if not name, a policy of containment. In the short-term North Korea’s brinkmanship has embarrassed Washington over its focus on Iraq and caused tensions with its allies; in the long-term the controversy is creating trouble for and strengthening adversaries of the hyper-power.
Why, then, should Beijing aid Washington?
It will do so only if the U.S. convinces the PRC that it is in China’s interest to do so. One tactic would be to tell the Chinese “that by failing to support us they put their relations with us at risk,” writes Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations. That might or might not work, but only at great cost, given the many other issues, ranging from trade to nonproliferation to Taiwan also at stake in the relationship.
Better would be to point out the adverse consequences to the PRC as well as America if Pyongyang does not desist. For instance, it is not in China’s interest for North Korea to destabilize the peninsula, risking economic ties with the South and inviting U.S. military action.
Moreover, the U.S. should indicate to the North, within hearing of Beijing, that if Pyongyang develops an atomic arsenal, Washington might be disinclined to dissuade neighboring states from following suit. Even if that threat was insufficient to deter the North, it would have a salutary effect on China, which does not want to see nuclear weapons spread to other neighboring states, most obviously Japan and Taiwan.
Obviously, such a step would be controversial — in the U.S. and throughout Asia. Yet the threat, combined with an appropriate package of carrots and sticks, might yield a peaceful, verifiable end to the North Korean program.
If the threat is insufficient, it would be better for Washington’s democratic friends to develop the means to deter the DPRK rather than expect America to remain entangled in such a dangerous region. If China can be trusted with nuclear weapons, why not democratic Seoul, Taipei, and Tokyo?
Indeed, such a course might merely accelerate reality. In coming years Washington is likely to feel increasingly uncomfortable shielding its allies from an increasingly assertive China. The U.S. will fear being drawn into an unnecessary war; Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan will fear America refusing to be drawn in.
A spread of nuclear weapons might encourage Chinese nuclear developments, but even worse is a power vacuum where everyone is forced to rely on America in any dispute with a nuclear-armed China. What is more chilling than having to risk Los Angeles to protect Seoul, Taipei, or Tokyo?
There are no easy answers to the problem of North Korea. The scheduled talks are a positive step, but policy towards Pyongyang is littered with positive steps that led no where. Winning the assistance of China — serious, sustained pressure on the North — is critical to ending North Korea’s nuclear pretensions. But that will require more than begging or threatening Beijing.
— Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.