[Viewpoint] China’s cooperation on the North
We face a daunting security challenge since the Korean Peninsula was on the brink of war over the first nuclear crisis in 1994. At that time, then U.S. President Bill Clinton and his aides considered the local preferential scanning attack on the Yongbyon nuclear facilities.
Fortunately, the mediation effort by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter contributed to defusing the crisis, while the Korean people never realized the seriousness of the whole affair.
The current situation seems more serious than ever. During the recent several months, North Korea has poured in such strong measures as nuclear experiments and missile launches. These were fundamentally different to its normal behavior. It should be understood that North Korea will never give up developing its nuclear weapons, no matter what economic carrots are offered.
The statement released by North Korea’s foreign ministry responding to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874 demonstrates Pyongyang’s determination to develop nuclear arms.
However, the United States cannot accept North Korea as a nuclear arms state.
U.S. President Barack Obama has declared a core policy to promote universal acceptance for nuclear arms reduction. If he accepts a nuclear-armed North Korea, he will fail to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons or “a nuclear domino effect” in Northeast Asia.
In conclusion, it indicates a deepening gulf between Pyongyang and Washington, with little possibility of finding a point of compromise.
Another reason why we take a serious view of the current situation is that North Korea’s hard-line stance is related to its effort to engineer a hereditary power succession.
There is nothing more important than the hereditary succession of power and the stability of the regime to North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il. He is urging his country to realize the possible scenarios of power succession due to his health problems. He has decided to take the road to becoming a nuclear state to guarantee the support of the military authorities and the regime’s security.
As Pyongyang’s nuclear issue is related to North Korea’s most sensitive issue, we find it more difficult to resolve the issue than even before.
Against this backdrop, the international community, including South Korea and the United States, should implement the strongest negative pressure on developing nuclear programs. Such action, in addition to offering the North the strongest positive incentive to give up its nuclear programs, could thus lead North Korea to take a positive inducement measurement.
The United Nations Security Council resolution adopted last week has been one of the strongest measures to encourage Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table.
However, cooperation with China is of great importance in helping such pressure to take effect.
China accounts for two-thirds of North Korea’s foreign trade, and the North’s dependence on China will be further increased as inter-Korean relations worsen.
However, it is not easy to seek closer cooperation with China.
It is clear that China cannot accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state. Such a response would provoke nuclear proliferation in Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan.
However, as China has placed a higher priority on the stability of the North Korean regime than denuclearization, it is reluctant to intensify the pressure on North Korea.
China has some understandable reasons.
First, the North Korean economy is at death’s door, relying on foreign assistance for survival. If China ceases to offer economic assistance to the North, the North Korean regime might collapse. China fears that millions of refugees will cross the national border to China in this scenario.
Second, if the insecurity of the North Korean regime leads to a South Korea-led reunification, China does not want the North to disappear as a buffer zone. In addition, it also does not want the influence of South Korea as an ally of the United States to move northward near the border along the Yalu River.
Of course, China might feel that if the South and the United States actually reduce worries of an exodus of refugees from the North into Korea, there is no need to establish a political buffer zone.
But it will still remain important to maintain a military buffer zone in such a case.
Yet, any trust between the U.S. and China, and between South Korea and China are not so deep to the degree that they could come to such an agreement on the future of the Korean Peninsula. Therefore, it is difficult to take a concerted stance toward North Korea, and hence North Korea acts as it wishes.
Of course, the relationship between China and North Korea is deteriorating, and many people in China are seeing North Korea as another burden to cope with rather than a close ally. However, there is still no sign that China’s core policymakers have overhauled its North Korea strategies.
As such, the North Korean nuclear issue concerns Pyongyang’s regime, reunification and geopolitical problems requiring the participation of our neighboring countries.
In such turbulent times, a national consensus is a prerequisite to setting a diplomatic goal based on compromise and encouraging a coordinated response from neighboring countries and the international community.
Nevertheless, when we have faced difficulties in the past, our political circles have failed to exercise national leadership.
Such a state of affairs is truly pitiful. Those in South Korea’s political circles still fail to recognize that these are extraordinary circumstances.
The writer is a professor of international politics at Seoul National University.
by Yoon Young-kwan