[OUTLOOK]China’s decision, North’s concernThere are already differing evaluations of the six-way talks in Beijing, but their success or failure will only be decided by such variables as time and choices. Although the direction of the North Korean nuclear crisis may become clearer when the second round of talks is held, a full-fledged war involving time has already begun.
If North Korea does not give up its nuclear plans and conducts an underground test, or if it abandons the talks and declares itself a nuclear state, security on the Korean Peninsula will be irreversibly damaged. If the North declares itself a nuclear state, other countries in the region, including South Korea, will have no choice but to take measures to cope with the new situation.
It appears that the nuclear crisis is entering its final phase, and all that is left is for North Korea’s neighbors to make their choices. China’s choice will have a great influence on the course of events; this is the first diplomatic and national security challenge to be faced by the new leadership there. Whatever Hu Jintao’s decision, it will be momentous.
So what choice should China make? Most observers believe that the crisis could be resolved by political decisions made in Washington and Pyeongyang, and that is not entirely wrong. But the United States is very unlikely to accept the North Korean insistence that Washington offer it a non-aggression treaty or something similar. Pyeongyang also insists that it has no choice but to acquire a nuclear deterrent, like Pakistan did, if the United States does not give up what North Korea calls its “hostile policy.”
A compromise between the the two can be pursued. For example, if the United States agreed to provide Pyeongyang with something short of treaty assurances and agreed to give those assurances in step with North Korea’s agreement to dismantle its nuclear program, the talks could go on and a settlement reached. If that happened, the North would have to return quickly to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and accept International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.
But the chances are not good for a peaceful settlement of the issue because the basic intention of North Korea to pursue nuclear armaments has not changed. If North Korea, as it contends, thinks of its nuclear weapons program as a bargaining chip in diplomatic negotiations, then there is a chance that the six-way talks and bilateral negotiations between Washington and Pyeongyang could succeed. But it seems as if the North is sticking to its nuclear program because it has already chosen to develop nuclear weapons for the survival of its political system.
North Korea has probably already judged that China, its only military ally, will not support it unflinchingly any more. Hu Jintao and his senior advisers seem to recognize that this second nuclear crisis, unlike the first crisis in 1993-94, is a kind of Maginot Line. China considers a buffer zone essential for the implementation of major national tasks like continued economic development, whether or not to withdraw state enterprises concentrated along the border area with North Korea, reform of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and ending conflicts with its minorities.
But because the first issue that could threaten this buffer zone is the North Korean nuclear issue, the Chinese government and army must make a strategic choice soon. They are at a crossroads in considering whether they should revamp their alliance with their communist comrades in North Korea that has endured for over 50 years: Should they continue their secret sanctions against the North to try to dissuade it from developing nuclear weapons, or should they ignore the problem?
In the struggle to solve the North Korean nuclear problem, decisions by the United States are of course an important variable, but the more important variable is what choice China will make. Before North Korea announced last October that it had a highly-enriched uranium production program, a hypothetical poll of the Chinese leadership would probably have found 51 percent support for North Korea. A poll taken now would probably show only about 49-percent support, a small but significant change.
Of course, there is no way to check the precise intent of the Chinese government. But if China judges that North Korea would hang on to its nuclear program to the end, China will find it hard not to act on the basis of that 2-percent shift in support. That is a new problem for North Korea to agonize over.
* The writer is a professor of international relations at the Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Chung-min