Sat, 15 Mar 2003

Gamble to rely on China over N. Korea issue

Yoichi Funabashi The Asahi Shimbun Tokyo

Both the United States and China are counting on each other to take action. Meanwhile, North Korea's nuclear development program is advancing.

It seems hardly a week goes by without North Korea flashing its nuclear card. In its latest outburst, it is warning that nuclear war could erupt if the U.S. takes military action. This suggests North Korea wants the U.S. to treat it as a full-fledged nuclear power.

But the U.S. is preoccupied with its war against terrorism and a possible military offensive against Iraq. It simply doesn't have time to devote its diplomatic attention to North Korea. That is why it is counting on China to step in.

China, more than any other country, wants North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions. It supplies North Korea with food and energy. So why doesn't it take advantage of this leverage to apply pressure on the North instead of sitting back and doing nothing? The U.S. is getting increasingly impatient at Beijing's inaction.

"China's attitude has been particularly disappointing. Beijing wants to be taken seriously as a regional and world power. Yet on North Korea, it has been narrowly parochial, appearing more concerned about the economic burden of more North Korean refugees than the destabilizing consequences of more North Korean nuclear bombs." This passage from a March 4 editorial in The New York Times would seem to reflect the Bush administration's thinking.

Still, China supported the International Atomic Energy Agency's decision to address the issue of inspection of North Korea's nuclear facilities at the UN Security Council. Beijing said North Korea's decision to restart its nuclear development program was unacceptable. Its attitude is in striking contrast with Russia, which abstained.

We hope China's critical attitude will encourage North Korea to re-evaluate its strategy. But things are not that simple.

A high-ranking Chinese government official I recently met confided: "We have a saying in China that a barefooted man is not afraid of one who wears shiny shoes. It applies to Kim Jong-il. Since he has nothing to lose, we don't know what he is going to do."

The Chinese official lived in Pyongyang for two years in the mid-1980s. His wife made a weekly grocery shopping expedition to China across the border. Along the way, she saw many hungry people virtually reduced to skeletons and huddled together. Although North Korean bureaucrats rant about ideology, they are only interested in enriching themselves, the official said. China's relations with North Korea may appear friendly to an outsider, but in reality the situation is strained, he said.

"Although it may not be much, China is providing aid to North Korea," the Chinese official said. "The North shows appreciation for aid from the U.S. and Japan. But as far as Chinese aid is concerned, it seems to take it for granted. A growing number of Chinese are getting fed up with North Korea."

China is also unhappy with North Korea's plans for the Sinuiju Special Administrative Region along the Chinese border. Kim Jong- il refused to listen to Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji's repeated protests that the creation of a special zone was undesirable because it would create a rip along the border through which North Korean refugees could flow into China. Since then, the cooling relationship has become even frostier.

Some members of the People's Liberation Army still regard North Korea with a sense of "solidarity." Some bureaucrats at the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Asian bureau also still attach great importance to China's relations with North Korea. It is these circumstances that have made China's North Korean policy murky. But the situation seems to be changing.

Last month, Chinese President Jiang Zemin discussed the matter with President George W. Bush over the phone. Prior to contacting Bush, Jiang told an internal meeting that China would never back North Korea against the U.S. again. In other words, he expressed China's determination not to repeat its decision to provide military assistance to North Korea, which it did during the Korean War.

During the Japan-South Korea-China summit in November, Zhu confided that Beijing did not know about North Korea's nuclear development. This is not the first time North Korea has kept China in the dark about something important. Kim's father, Kim Il-sung, did not give advance notice to Mao Tse-tung about the start of the Korean War.

It is not surprising that North Korea did not listen to China. Mao warned Kim Il-sung of the possibility Douglas MacArthur would attack Inchon, but Kim ignored him.

When Jiang and Bush talked over the phone, sources said they tried to push the responsibility on each other to try to talk North Korea into abandoning its nuclear weapons program, saying the other party had better prospects of pulling it off. Three scenarios bring dread: the collapse of North Korea, a military confrontation with North Korea, and North Korea's development of nuclear weapons. That is why everyone is hanging back. Both the U.S. and China are counting on each other to take action. Meanwhile, North Korea's nuclear development program is advancing.

"China is not going to move until the very last moment," said a North Korean expert at a Chinese think tank. "When it does, it will be when it is left with no choice but to do so to protect its national interests. When the time comes, it will stop the provision of food and energy."

But when "the time" comes, it may be too late.