[Viewpoint] China syndrome

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[Viewpoint] China syndrome

Let’s say we agree that the sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council on North Korea are stern and comprehensive. Let’s say that Washington’s and Tokyo’s independent financial sanctions effectively block North Korea’s cash flow and its needs for international financial transactions.

Without China’s active participation, however, the sanctions on North Korea won’t significantly impact North Korea’s leadership or force it to change its mind and return to the six-party talks. Several sets of statistics concerning economic relations between North Korea and China clearly confirm this.

According to The Washington Post, North Korea gets 90 percent of its energy from China. The energy source it doesn’t depend on its neighbor for is coal.

North Korea turns to China each year for food aid to supplement shortfalls in its own crop production. It’s thought that more than 45 percent of the food North Koreans consume comes from China. This food supply is referred to as an import but in reality it’s aid. Pyongyang gives nothing in return except perhaps access to some mineral resources.

The Washington Post reported that during the past year trade between North Korea and China increased by 41 percent, and North Korea’s trade with China accounted for 73 percent of North Korea’s entire trade volume. This means that China is throwing the country a lifeline that will keep the North at minimum survival levels despite the imposition of sanctions.

When the UN Security Council discussed Resolution 1874 and the imposition of sanctions on North Korea, China changed the wording that the UN “demands” its member countries inspect North Korea’s cargo vessels on the high seas to “calls upon.” This change weakened the measure’s binding power because member countries could decide whether to act or not.

Most people know that China strongly opposes North Korea’s nuclear armament, but North Korea will not give up its nuclear ambition just because the rest of the world, including China, opposes it.

But China is not convinced that we need big sticks to force the communist country to abandon its nuclear program. China says wielding a stick is not its goal, and so it takes no action to actively promote the resolution and sanctions.

Of course, others also know that getting tough with Pyongyang is not a goal in itself; it’s a measure to bring North Korea back to the table. President Lee Myung-bak and U.S. President Barack Obama have made this clear.

Yet China still makes insufficient efforts. The country simply refuses to pursue further efforts.

A reliable news source reports that the United States is trying to raise China’s participation in sanctions on North Korea from the current 15 percent to 75 percent.

But even 75 percent will be not sufficient. If China’s participation is below that level, it will be difficult to change North Korea’s reckless and provocative policies with financial sanctions.

The source explained, from the U.S. point of view, the differences between South Korea, the United States and China on why North Korea is obsessed with developing nuclear arms and long-range missiles.

According to his analysis, the United States gives a lot of weight to North Korea’s domestic situation; China thinks North Korea went ahead with nuclear development because the United States did not treat North Korea with enough respect; and South Korea’s view lies somewhere in between.

The United States’ view gives the impression that it blames North Korea for the halt in the denuclearization process. If the reasons why North Korea stopped implementing the agreement reached at the six-party talks are to be found in problems inside North Korea, there is not much left that the other five member countries can do. If Kim Jong-il wants to develop nuclear weapons and missiles, display them as the great achievement of Kim Il Sung’s family, pass on his power to his son Jong-un and establish succession, no carrots from the outside world will work. That is the weak point of Washington’s view.

China’s perception is old-fashioned and cannot explain why North Korea has changed since last summer. It also wants to hold the United States accountable. Another well-informed source said the problem is that China hopes the current stalemate will continue.

And South Korea’s view, lying somewhere between the United States’ and China’s, can be said to be most realistic, because North Korea must have broken the six-party agreement and forged ahead with nuclear and missile development because of domestic reasons as well as outside factors.

What’s clear now is that North Korea’s nuclear development has gained momentum. If not blocked, its stock of nuclear weapons and missiles could grow too large to cut back over the next six months or a year. We’re then left with the unsavory situation of a major threat to the geopolitics of Northeast Asia and, from China’s point of view, to China’s national security.

If China opposes North Korea’s nuclear armament but does not participate in implementing measures to denuclearize it, China should be held responsible for playing the role of an onlooker. China maintains that it has no influence over North Korea, but no one believes that anymore. China’s perception that North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons is better than its collapse goes against the progress of history. China must act to help thwart North Korea’s nuclear ambitions before it is too late.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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