[Viewpoint] China not fi t for ‘mediator role’World attention is on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s expected visit to China late this month. There are vague expectations that Kim could make important decisions on the fate of the North’s nuclear development program, including the resumption of six-party talks, on the occasion of the summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao. But it is naive to expect that Hu will press Kim to oblige or that Kim will promise, on Hu’s advice, to give up his nuclear development programs.
At the global Nuclear Security Summit scheduled for April 12-13 in Washington, D.C., and the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Meeting from May 3-28 in New York, China and North Korea will approach the nuclear issue on a global dimension.
By emphasizing North Korea’s demand for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and nuclear disarmament talks with the United States, China and North Korea will try to put the Obama administration’s will for a “world without nuclear weapons” on trial. North Korea, on its side, will claim that a peace treaty should precede the denuclearization process and nuclear disarmament talks. It will also demand the right for peaceful use of nuclear power.
Five months have passed since Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced openly that he personally confirmed Kim Jong-il’s will to return to the six-party talks during their meeting in October and advised other participants to have a dialogue with the North. In compliance with his advice, Washington sent Stephen Bosworth, the special representative for North Korea policy, to Pyongyang in December, and Seoul held a series of working-level talks with Pyongyang for an inter-Korean summit meeting in Singapore and Kaesong. However, North Korea is not returning to the dialogue yet, and no progress has been made in the bilateral contacts Washington and Seoul had with Pyongyang.
Anxious about the delay in the talks’ resumption, Beijing sent Wang Jiarui, a senior Chinese Communist Party envoy, to Pyongyang with “a verbal personal message” from President Hu Jintao. After postponing the meeting with the Chinese envoy on the excuse that he was busy with inspection tours, Kim finally met Wang in Hamheung on Feb. 8. But his response to Hu’s message was merely formal. He reiterated the North’s “persistent stance to realize the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” according to Xinhua News Agency. Kim also stressed it was important for the nations in the six-party setting, Xinhua reported, to be sincere and serious about resuming the talks.
This is on the same level as the remarks Kim made to Premier Wen in October and also with those of the North Korean officials Bosworth met in Pyongyang in December. How can Kim Jong-il treat Hu Jintao’s personal message so lightly? Why has China not penalized or criticized North Korea for that?
Speculation is running rampant. In short, it is either because the Chinese influence on the North has reached its limit, or because China refrains from exercising its influence for unknown reasons. Either way, China is not fit to play the mediator role any longer. It is time to reconsider the hypothesis that the six-party talks are the most practical and effective way to address the nuclear issue.
Ten months have already passed since North Korea dared to try the nascent Obama administration with a series of provocations: testing a nuclear device for the second time, firing missiles, announcing the launching of a uranium enrichment program and threatening to weaponize plutonium collected from used fuel rods. What the United States and its allies have done in the meantime was adopt UN Security Council Resolution 1874 on June 12, 2009.
This does not mean that the North Korea policy of the Obama administration is a failure or ineffective. Keeping to the principle that there is “no reward to provocations,” the Obama administration unfolded a common front against North Korea’s export of WMDs and nuclear technology, maintaining close cooperation with countries concerned. Consequently, Washington’s North Korea policy succeeded in decreasing 80 percent of North Korea’s profits from arms sales in a year, and that will drive North Korean leaders into a situation where they cannot persist any longer.
The problem is that the resumption of the six-party process is delayed. That has to do with the will and leadership of China, which chairs the talks. Because China wants a diplomatic solution to the North Korea nuclear problem, other participants have been waiting, putting aside pressure tactics such as imposing stronger financial sanctions until the Chinese effort to persuade the North bears fruit.
It is no exaggeration that China is in a position to play a decisive role in finding a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear issue, because North Korea depends on China economically and militarily.
It seems, however, that China does not consider North Korea’s nuclear program a threat either to its security or to Northeast Asia’s. China rather worries that the missile defense program of the United States threatens Chinese security.
The Chinese position toward the North’s nuclear program is also clarified in the statement delivered by Hu Xiaodi, the Chinese representative at the 2005 NPT Review Conference.
First, China considers the goal of the six-party talks “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” not “denuclearization of North Korea.”
Second, “North Korea and the U.S. are the key parties on the nuclear issue,” and China’s role is “diplomatic mediator” for the early resumption of the six-party talks, not persuading the North to give up its nuclear program.
Third, China urges North Korea “to consider coming back to the negotiating table at an early date,” while urging the United States “to create an atmosphere conducive to the resumption of the six-party talks.” These stances make it clear on which side China stands in the six-party process.
North Korea’s nuclear development program is a serious problem that not only threatens the security of Northeast Asia, but also challenges the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. In order to create a world without nuclear weapons, the UN effort to review the performances of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty should be reinforced.
The Nuclear Security Summit to be held under the initiative of President Obama and the 2010 NPT Review Conference will provide optimum opportunities for this purpose. International society should learn lessons from NPT violations committed by North Korea, Iran and others in the past. All non-nuclear countries as well as nuclear powers should be united and take firm action to strengthen the existing NPT system if they really want to create a world without nuclear weapons.
*It’s time to reconsider the idea that the six-party talks are the best venue in which to discuss denuclearization.
By Park Sung-soo