China: Pyongyang just wants attention
By Antoaneta Bezlova
BEIJING - Dismissive of warnings that the Korean Peninsula stands on the brink
of war, China contends North Korea's recent provocative actions are yet another
illustration of brinkmanship aimed at attracting the United States' attention.
Beijing decried the North's nuclear tests in late May, but remains uncommitted
to tougher sanctions against the impoverished Stalinist nation.
Diplomats from the five permanent members of the Security Council - China,
Britain, France, Russia and the US - plus Japan and South Korea, have been
conducting intensive bargaining sessions for almost a week attempting to agree
on new measures to punish the defiant North.
They have signed off on widening the arms embargo imposed on Pyongyang after
its first nuclear detonation in 2006, and new financial restrictions - but
remain at loggerheads over the issue of
inspecting cargo ships on the high seas. China has warned that interdicting
ships at sea on suspicion of carrying banned materials could provoke the North
into a military response and at the very least discourage it from returning to
talks on abandoning its nuclear program.
North Korean state-run media warned Monday that Pyongyang "will consider any
sanction a declaration of war and will take due corresponding self-defense
The Chinese foreign ministry has called on all parties to "exercise calmness
and restraint" and "refrain from making any remarks or taking any action that
may further deteriorate the situation".
In the past two weeks, North Korea has defied the international community by
successfully test-firing its second nuclear device, firing a volley of
ballistic missiles, and tearing up the 56-year truce agreement with South
Korea. Further escalating tensions with the West, a Pyongyang court Monday
sentenced two US reporters to 12 years in a labor camp for an illegal border
crossing and unspecified "grave acts".
Still, Pyongyang's pledges that the Korean peninsula will return "to a state of
war" have left many Korea watchers here unfazed.
"North Korea has never abided by any agreement, and tearing up the truce with
the South comes as no surprise," Zhang Liangui, an expert at the Central Party
School, which trains communist officials here, told the Southern Weekend
newspaper. "This is an act aimed at pressuring the West, and not an indication
of an impending military conflict."
China has played a leading role in the six-party negotiations to persuade
Pyongyang to decommission its illicit nuclear program and maintains that talks
are the only way out of the nuclear stalemate gripping the peninsula. But
Beijing blames the failure of the talks on the US's past harsh line on the
North and its recent preoccupation with peace negotiations in the Middle East.
Beijing has been reluctant to criticize the North Korean regime on the grounds
that it is not its policy to interfere in the internal affairs of other states.
But there are deeper layers than that.
China and North Korea may be worlds apart in terms of international economic
and political standing, but the two are still bonded by a long-standing
This year the two countries are celebrating 60 years of diplomatic relations
and March saw the launching in Beijing of the "year of friendship between China
and North Korea". More than sixty events are planned to mark the anniversary of
the bilateral ties - which coincide with communist China's founding
"The outside view that China has the most leverage over North Korea but does
not want to exercise it is skewed," said Zhan Xiaohong, researcher with the
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "The North believes that it is simply
following China's example of using military power to gain the international
respect it lacks because of its backward economic situation. How could China
deny Pyongyang that?"
Zhan points out that in the 1960s China went through a similar period. Emerging
from a devastating three-year famine the communist country was desperately
impoverished but resolved to develop its nuclear weapons.
"It was the nuclear deterrent that made great powers like the Soviet Union and
America take count of China, and it was nuclear power that was able to
guarantee the country's peaceful economic development over the next decades,"
On the face of it, China joined the chorus of international condemnation of
North Korea's brinkmanship and even called off the visit of Chen Zhili,
vice-chairwoman of the country's legislature, to Pyongyang scheduled for early
June. But Beijing has refrained from using harsh language in its comments
regarding the North's sabre-rattling, and has argued against pushing the
Stalinist regime to the brink.
Beijing worries that imposing ever harsher economic sanctions on the North
could destabilize further its stagnated economy and lead to the collapse of the
regime. Yet as its biggest trade partner, China is an economic lifeline for
North Korea. China's exports account for 70% of the North's fuel, 40% of its
grain, and 80% of its consumer goods. Last year bilateral trade jumped 40% to
reach US$2.78 billion.