[OVERSEAS VIEW]Divided responses give North a green lightThe UN Security Council could not have adopted Resolution 1718, condemning North Korea’s Oct. 9 nuclear test, in less than one week without China’s unprecedented willingness to punish North Korea’s “brazen” act. But Chinese scholars at a meeting hosted by Professor Liu Ming of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences last week expressed virtually unanimous doubt that the resolution would be effective in changing North Korea’s current path.
Nor did Chinese specialists believe that a harsher response to subsequent North Korean tests would succeed in curbing North Korea’s program. Despite positive expectations for Chinese cooperation based on Secretary Rice’s visit to Beijing, the international consensus forged by the resolution may inevitably crack in the next few weeks if the United States and China (not to mention South Korea) take drastically different interpretations on how aggressively to implement the sanctions against North Korea.
A committee of the UN Security Council will have the final word in determining precisely which North Korean entities and trade items are subject to sanctions. There are already clear differences between China’s narrow interpretation of the resolution and a more aggressive U.S. interpretation. For instance, China wants to simply inspect goods in port while the United States may prepare to conduct maritime interception or interdiction of vessels to and from North Korea.
In contrast to near-universal American skepticism (despite President Bush’s insistence that diplomacy is not yet exhausted) that negotiation is a viable option for dealing with North Korea’s current leadership, Chinese scholars still see diplomatic efforts such as Tang Jiaxuan’s meeting with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang as the only viable option.
However, even if North Korea unconditionally declares its willingness to return to “mutual disarmament” talks (as a nuclear power), the United States will refuse to acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear state, or to allow Pyongyang benefits that may derive from such a status.
Chinese analysts point to the North Korean efforts to reassure its neighbors regarding environmental safety measures taken in conjunction with the test as language that shows North Korea’s sensitivity to external opinion (compared with no advance notice in the run-up to last July’s missile tests). China may punish North Korea, but only as a tactic for regaining lost influence. On the heels of punishments, Chinese analysts may prefer to use the restoration of benefits denied as rewards designed to enhance China’s leverage and curb additional escalation by North Korea.
The task of restoring a diplomatic mechanism for dialogue between the United States and North Korea will require third-party efforts in the context of deeply held mutual mistrust, but now it is not clear that any third party, including the Chinese, is well positioned to play that role. Certainly, North Korea no longer views China as a neutral mediator, a fact that several Chinese analysts felt was a diplomatic misstep that diminished China’s leverage over both North Korea and the United States.
Prior to the test, the Bush administration argued that a nuclear North Korea is inherently destabilizing, in hopes that China would apply greater pressure to keep North Korea from going nuclear. But China’s objective as it applies sanctions to North Korea is now to ensure that the worst-case scenario of a destabilized nuclear North Korea does not materialize.
Even if Kim Jong-il were to leave the scene, would a successor leadership be more likely to give up its nuclear option without dramatic changes in regional relations?
There is little evidence that China sees regime change as a surefire method to pursue the unprecedented task of a nuclear rollback following a nuclear test.
Although Chinese scholars increasingly express their disappointment and even disgust with North Korea’s retrograde system, there remains considerable resentment of the Bush administration, which is blamed for allowing the situation to deteriorate unnecessarily, putting China into an ever more awkward position. But the Chinese response thus far, the dual appeasement of both the United States and North Korea, risks further exacerbating a situation in which prospects for miscalculation on all sides are increasing.
One Chinese analyst describes North Korea as a wayward son who requires discipline from a parent. Any “punitive action” does not change the fundamental relationship between parent and child. This is a strikingly different framework from the Bush administration’s “crime and punishment” approach, although North Korea’s nuclear test has catalyzed unprecedented unity in the face of a common threat to its neighbors. Failure to sustain a unified response may exacerbate existing differences over how hard to press North Korea and may make Korea’s future a major issue of contention in U.S.-China relations.
The persistence of strategic mistrust between Beijing, Seoul and Washington will serve as a green light for Pyongyang’s nuclear gambit and destroy the common strategic purpose necessary to stop North Korea’s bid to join the nuclear club. A solution will not be found until all parties exercise shared ownership of and responsibility for North Korea’s nuclear challenge.
* The writer is a senior associate with the Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS.
by Scott Snyder