Beijing holds the keyIn February 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon met with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in Shanghai and made a secret promise that Washington wouldn’t allow Japan to develop independent nuclear weapons capability. At the time, China was preparing its first nuclear test, which came in 1974. Chinese Foreign Minister Chen Yi was determined that his country would possess nuclear weapons “even if the Chinese people have to pawn their trousers for this purpose.” The Nixon-Zhou secret pact allowed China to concentrate on nuclear development and realized Chen’s dream. China, now armed with fearful nuclear capabilities, is trying to restructure the order in Asia by putting China at its center.
Four decades after the Nixon-Zhou pact, some people say that Japan’s independent nuclear capability is unavoidable. Although it’s still a minority opinion, famous international political scientists and nuclear strategists such as the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer and Kenneth Waltz of UC Berkeley make the argument. They are realists who believe that China could become comparable to the United States by 2030 in the fields of ballistic missile systems, nuclear warhead development and the military use of space. Because of such a belief, they think Japan needs to have 21st-century independent defense capabilities as a counterweight.
The arguments to allow Japan an independent nuclear capability were made before North Korea’s nuclear threats became a reality. The idea was to check China and it started from an insecure feeling that the U.S. nuclear umbrella and missile defense regime wouldn’t be enough to guarantee the security of Japan from China’s nuclear and missile threats.
Today, North Korea is realizing its nuclear programs and Japan’s sense of insecurity is growing rapidly. Ironically, that sense of crisis in Japan provides an opportunity to South Korea and the United States to use China to check the North’s nuclear aspirations.
China agreed to the United Nations’ resolution to issue fresh sanctions after the North’s recent long-range rocket launch, and the decision appeared to be based on the judgment that a nuclear-armed North Korea could validate Japan’s argument for nuclear development. If Northeast Asia becomes the arena of a nuclear arms race, China’s strategy to push America out of the region to establish a Sino-centric regional order will be reduced to a mirage.
That’s why Beijing holds the key to the North Korean nuclear crisis. About 90 percent of the North’s trade is with China. It imports more than 90 percent of its fuel oil and 20 percent of its food from China. In other words, China is holding the North’s lifeline in its grasp. And yet, the North does not listen to China’s demands to stop provocative actions that threaten the security of Northeast Asia or to refrain from nuclear and missile development. The North is confident that China won’t push it off a cliff. It has made a strategic calculation that China will exert pressure on the North only within a certain limit. It is frustrating, but that is the truth.
The North is sanguine that it will become a recognized nuclear state. It will only join the negotiating table when it is confident about its status as a nuclear state and thinks it is recognized as a nuclear state by the international community.
Now, we need to buy some time. Reinforced sanctions and a hardline approach will only fuel problems, not resolve them. We must cooperate with the United States to push China to persuade the North more aggressively.
The U.S. must revise its strategy in regards to China. At the same time, a long-term strategy should be created. The core of the strategy will be stopping Pyongyang from disturbing the regional order. To this end, Seoul, Washington and Beijing must work together to come up with a comprehensive vision to realize a peaceful regime on the Korean Peninsula and create a multilateral security regime in Northeast Asia by inviting Moscow and Tokyo.
If the North goes ahead with its third nuclear test, the Park Geun-hye administration’s basic North Korea policy framework, which is based on a process of trust-building on the peninsula, will sink beneath the waves even before its launch. If inter-Korean relations continue to be stuck in the deep freeze, the North will improve its ballistic missile technology and make significant progress in nuclear warhead miniaturization.
Developments like that will only encourage the Shinzo Abe administration in Tokyo, which openly promotes the idea of independent defense capabilities including the creation of a national defense force. That will fuel a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia with Seoul being forced to join the defense network of the U.S. and Japan, including the missile defense. Tensions will build up between South Korea and China, and Seoul will have to pay an expensive price in terms of its economy in addition to the worsening security environment.
It is only half right to see the North’s nuclear test as a bargaining chip. As of now, North Korea will only agree to talk when it sees itself as a nuclear state that can negotiate with America on equal footing.
The fact is that China is in the position to deprive the North of that confidence by using its economic cards. It’s only in the current moment that the North Korean people are wild about nuclear and missile developments. When their hunger gets dragged out and even worsens, their dissatisfaction will build up and Kim Jong-un will have no choice but to reconsider his policy of pouring money into nukes and missiles.
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie