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[Viewpoint] China’s nuclear headache

China does not want North Korea to have a nuclear arsenal but at the same time it doesn’t want North Korea’s regime to collapse, either.

June 16,2009
The United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1874 recently in response to North Korea’s second nuclear test.

The resolution contains the strongest possible measures, bar military action, calling for more stringent inspections of North Korea’s cargo vessels on the high seas. In addition, the resolution bans North Korea’s imports and exports of weapons and financial transactions related to weapons of mass destruction.

Some voices estimate that the resolution will have an immediate impact, causing $4 billion in losses to North Korea’s economy. That would be enough to seriously hamper the communist country, considering the scale of its economy. It’s no surprise, then, that North Korea is protesting.

But we can’t escape the nagging concern that the new current resolution will just be another smoke screen, just like other resolutions against North Korea in the past.

The resolution allows UN member states to decide on their own whether to implement the actions, so it is absolutely vital that those countries in the Northeast Asia region fully comply and actively take part.

If there is no control at the borders with North Korea, the inspections of cargo and the ban on imports and exports of weapons will have no teeth.

Experts agree that China’s role is essential. The country accounts for 74 percent of North Korea’s total trade. Without its help, it will be virtually impossible for the resolution to take effect.

But before blaming others, we need to look at our own problems.

South Korea is not free from responsibility for North Korea’s provocative behavior of late.

North Korea’s two nuclear tests cost $800 million to $900 million and long-range missile launches are estimated to have cost $500 million to $600 million. Where did the money come from?

South Korea has provided aid worth $7 billion to North Korea over the past 10 years; $2.9 billion in cash. Thus, we can safely say that South Korea’s role is as important as China’s. China is angry at North Korea for causing mischief and destabilizing the region.

Essentially North Korea’s dangerous behavior is interfering with China’s vital issues.

For instance, China has been forced to sit and watch as five Aegis destroyers from South Korea, the United States and Japan sailed in the East Sea in April on the day when North Korea launched a Taepodong-2 missile.

The Aegis destroyers conducted anti-missile drills that could be used to protect against China’s missile capability as well.

Because of North Korea’s missile launches, South Korea, the United States and Japan have advanced their capacity to defend missiles, and as a result, China’s nuclear deterrent has weakened.

North Korea’s nuclear tests have also spurred discussions on nuclear armament in South Korea and Japan.

Nevertheless, China is still hesitating to take decisive action. It does not want North Korea to have a nuclear arsenal but at the same time it doesn’t want North Korea’s regime to collapse, either.

China is worried that tighter sanctions against North Korea will bring about the end of the North Korean regime. What’s better for China? A nuclear state on its border or a reunified democratic Korean Peninsula under the influence of the U.S.?

Another scenario would be for the United States to accept North Korea’s nuclear capability as it did with India and Pakistan.

China responded sternly in 2006 when North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. For the first time in history, China approved a UN resolution against North Korea.

The statement by China’s foreign ministry was much stronger three years ago. But after a little while, Washington approached Pyongyang, provided economic incentives and produced the Feb. 13 agreement without using the words “nuclear weapons.”

China must have calculated that only its influence on North Korea has weakened.

What should be done to induce China to participate in the sanctions on North Korea? Two things. First, the Barack Obama administration must show that it’s determined to make North Korea abolish its nuclear ambitions. If the United States does not act, China only observes passively.

It’s important to calm China’s worries over the future of the Korean Peninsula. That is a task for South Korea. Open and intimate dialogue with China is imperative right now.

*The writer is a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Yun Deok-min



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