BEIJING - The international flap caused by reports that North Korea is
preparing to test-fire its new Taepodong 2 intercontinental ballistic missile
has placed China in an unenviable position.
Beijing appears to have had no impact on restraining its restive neighbor in
this instance, leading the world to wonder just how influential it in fact is,
given that it is traditionally viewed as the country with the most hold over
North Korea. It could be that Beijing just didn't want to try to push Pyongyang
too hard, or simply that there is nothing it can do to box in North Korean
leader Kim Jong-il.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has said Beijing "is very concerned
about the current situation".
Ban Ki-moon, South Korea's minister of foreign affairs and trade, was to travel
to China on Monday to discuss the missile issue. "There is a growing need to
intensify discussions between South Korea and China on North Korea's recent
missile issue and the nuclear issue," the South Korean Foreign Ministry said in
a statement. Ban was to meet with his counterpart, Li Zhaoxing, as well as
Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, the ministry said.
The options for a reasonable, peaceful settlement to the broader North Korean
nuclear issue are steadily being whittled down, potentially leaving China in a
major political quagmire.
Over the past few years, the success of the six-party talks on North Korea have
in essence hinged on China's ability to restrain Kim. The United States
appreciated that the initiative - which also included South Korea, Japan and
Russia - had started to pay off. The talks were suspended in November after a
North Korean boycott in response to US financial restrictions imposed over
allegations of money-laundering and counterfeiting by North Korean companies.
North Korea's latest actions provoked Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to call
for a resumption of the six-party talks.
Since 1998, when North Korea tested a Taepodong 1, Kim has yelled and
postured but done nothing as threatening, while at the same time introducing
timid but sensitive economic reforms in the Hermit Kingdom. Senior officials
have been touched by the opening up, seeing their lives change for the better
with a hint of luxury, such as air-conditioning and mobile phones.
Of course, there are no statistics on this. Indeed, there are virtually no
statistics on anything on North Korea, but visitors to the country report that
in the past couple of years a larger group of people has become accustomed to a
"softer" life through consumer goods being brought into the country, mostly
China is reported to have provided more than US$2 billion last year to help
North Korea build new factories and modernize its energy infrastructure.
North Koreans sporting Italian-designed clothes can be seen cruising in and out
of the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, driving Mercedes and purchasing all
kinds of goods from nearby shops. These North Koreans have adopted the
entrepreneurial skills that could in time completely change the face of their
But the process of change is a slow one, and is not irreversible. Free economic
activities are limited to a small band - peasants selling their vegetables in
the cities, private citizens selling small quantities of imported goods from
China. All large economic activity is still controlled by the government, which
funds itself, if reports are to believed, by trafficking in forged currency and
in selling weapons and drugs.
Kim seems to have devised a clever little scheme. He no longer holds his
famished people hostage to blackmail by saying, "Give me aid or I let 1 million
of my North Koreans starve to death." Now he says, "You can see I let my people
eat their fill (more or less), so you have let me carry on with my
Kim is unlikely to embark on radical economic reforms that could restart the
North Korean economy and really set it on the path of well-being, especially if
US money were involved. Any aid from the US could be seen as an attempt at
regime change in Pyongyang, so Kim is better off on his present course, which
comes with no strings attached.
China has been trying for years to build some sort of trust between Pyongyang
and Washington, but the problem is that Kim is untrustworthy - from his lavish
lifestyle and personality cult to playing with his people's lives.
The US takes a step forward, but North Korea holds back. The reason, people in
Beijing argue, is that from Pyongyang's perspective, the US can afford to be
generous - its life is not at stake. But for Kim it is different: his survival
is in jeopardy.
From the US side, some people are growing impatient with the whims of what they
see as a little tyrant, and think simply: let's get rid of him.
In the middle stands China, which does not want to be squeezed into a military
confrontation that could flood its northeast with millions of refugees, and it
does not want to spoil its ties with a neighbor (or the US, for that matter).
One of the central tenets of Beijing's policy toward Pyongyang is that it
regards that country as an important security buffer and considers it critical
that North Korea survive as a viable state.
And it should not be forgotten that North Korea is still part of the Korean
Peninsula, and many people in the South could think of a Chinese involvement in
an attack on the North as a war on all Korea. The Chinese war on Vietnam in
1979 still embitters bilateral relations with that neighbor to the south. This
can't be repeated with North and South Korea.
Furthermore, it is not only China that is very cautious about an armed approach
to Pyongyang. North Korean weapons sit just over the border - the could bombard
Seoul in an act of retaliation, causing thousands of casualties before being
eventually destroyed by South Korean and US fire.
Therefore, the options are very limited about what to do with North Korea.
(This does not take into account those people who think Beijing and Pyongyang
are working together to destabilize the Far East.) War, however restricted,
seems not to be a choice, although two US experts in defense policy and former
senior members of government last week called for military intervention.
Bilateral development, whether involving the US, China or South Korea, can only
go so far, given the levels of mistrust and that North Korea has an advanced
missile (and nuclear) program.
This leaves China, which many believe should exert more pressure. But what if
this pressures breaks North Korea? This is what bothers China, and what renders
it almost powerless - the fear of the disintegration of North Korea.
This throws the onus back on the United States. And if the US has to solve the
problem, then China can't be counted on to be a US partner in Asia, at least
not a strong one. Leaders of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee have
called on President George W Bush to talk directly with Pyongyang. Currently,
the US only engages in dialogue within the framework of the six-party talks.
China, then, is caught in a vicious circle. It has to prove to the world that
it is important in the region, and it can do this by vigorously helping to
solve the North Korea problem. With some imaginative steps, this could be done,
with three possible scenarios.
First, there is the soft approach. The six-party talks could agree to give Kim
a small state, like Andorra or Liechtenstein in Europe, carved out between the
two Koreas and financed by the neighbors. After all, he wants money, luxury and
some face. He is awful, but history is full of these characters, and some money
could be a small price to avert a war. The flip side: one would be rewarding a
bad leader and bad behavior.
Second, there is the hard approach. Intercept the missile, and then pretend
nothing happened, thereby reducing the propaganda effect of the test.
Meanwhile, tighten the screws on Kim's trafficking and let him simply survive
on a very short leash, without suffocating him. The country would crumble. The
flip side: millions of refugees, and millions of North Koreans starving to
Third, simply ignore the present commotion, thinking that it took 44 years of
the Cold War to bring down the USSR. In this case, the present
missile-mongering is a sign of weakness, not of strength.
China would not like the second option. With the others, Beijing could prove
its mettle by being actively engaged and becoming the hero, the one that saved
the day, if the day can still be saved. Otherwise, China could end up paying a
political price steeper than North Korea for Kim's misbehavior.