[NOTEBOOK]China’s diplomatic coming-outChina has rolled up its sleeves to seek a solution for the North Korean nuclear issue. In April, in Beijing, it acted as intermediary for talks between the United States and North Korea. Recently Chinese President Hu Jintao sent personal letters to Pyeongyang and Washington.
Such activity is totally different from Beijing’s stance in the spring of 1994. At that time, China said that it supported denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but that the North Korean nuclear issue should be solved through talks among the concerned parties. The nuclear issue, in other words, was not China’s business.
The biggest reason for China’s new attitude seems to be the “learning effect.” In 1994, China did not seem to know that the United States briefly considered bombing North Korean nuclear facilities. Should North Korea be attacked militarily, China is obliged immediately to provide military aid because of the mutual assistance treaty that the two countries concluded in 1961. The Iraq War showed that the United States possesses the rashness to act when it wants to. China perhaps wanted to avoid a possible military confrontation with America.
Even though it might turn a blind eye to the United States’ use of armed forces, how would China handle the possible rush of North Korean refugees into its northeastern provinces?
Moreover, to narrow the gap between its own rich and the poor, and to suppress the demand for political democratization, China urgently needs a stable international environment that will allow it to concentrate on economic development.
There is another difference from 1994. Now, North Korea is talking big about developing nuclear weapons. China can no longer ignore the issue as the business of others. North Korean nuclear weapons would have the range to strike China, and they will bring on a domino effect in nuclear armament of Northeast Asia. Such a scenario would present Taiwan with a justification for a nuclear program. China cannot look away from North Korea.
Whatever the reason, it is desirable that China take a positive step to solve the North Korean nuclear issue. First, it will be an opportunity to correct the relationship between China and South Korea that leans heavily to the economic sector. Last year, trade between the two countries amounted to $41.1billion. In 2001, China surpassed Japan and at the end of this year will overtake the United States as South Korea’s biggest export market. Last year, 2.1 million South Koreans and 540,000 Chinese visited each other’s country.
Trade between North Korea and China reached only $740 million, less than 2 percent of the amount between South Korea and China. Former Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji last year suggested that a free trade agreement between South Korea, China and Japan should be considered. If political and military alliance can be visualized, the North Korean nuclear issue offers an opportunity for much healthier relations between South Korea and China.
At the multilateral talks to solve the nuclear issue, economic aid and a nonaggression guarantee for North Korea will be raised. Just as the United States participated in the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, China cannot but bear some share of economic aid to North Korea. A positive effect of that would be to check the advance of Japanese capital into North Korea.
Last, if China participates as a concerned party and a solution is prepared, North Korea may be unable subsequently to repudiate the deal, as it did with the Geneva Agreed Framework. It cannot choose a diplomacy that will treat its only ally with hostility. Therefore, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said, this time a permanent solution can be expected.
Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating said in a speech that only China provides an alternative to contain U.S. unilateral power. To deal with the North Korean nuclear issue will be the first opportunity to gauge Chinese capabilities.
* The writer is international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Jae-hak