Beijing’s moment of choiceThe fall skies are high and clear, and a gloom can be felt over the Korean Peninsula. North Korea is said to be readying another satellite launch timed for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party on Oct. 10. North Korea’s space program is actually a guise to test long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. That is why a rocket launch from North Korea is often followed by a nuclear test. It has been that way from when it detonated its first nuclear device in 2006 to its last test in 2013. Those acts immediately drew international condemnation and sanctions from the United Nations Security Council. Inter-Korean ties get an additional layer of ice, and important events like reunions of war-separated families can be canceled.
The North Korean nuclear predicament has been a threat to East Asian peace for the last 20 years. Nothing has worked. The international community has failed to deter or stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program through containment nor has the reclusive authoritarian regime gotten any stabler due to its nuclear leverage. What has been lacking is a more constructive role for China. China is the world’s second-largest economy after the United States and North Korea’s single major patron. One can only wonder if China has the will or capacity to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Beijing has become more outspoken on the issue. It was criticized for failing to keep watch over Pyongyang or looking the other way when the latter’s nuclear program first raised global concern in 1993. Its attitude changed when the North Korea nuclear crisis resurfaced from 2002. Beijing has decided that it must act differently if it wants to draw respect from the international community.
Beijing spoke harsh words when North Korea carried out its first nuclear test in October 2006. It joined UN sanctions. Its attitude became stricter after President Xi Jinping took office.
Still, few believe Beijing is doing enough about Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Not doing enough can be interpreted as condoning North Korea’s nuclear program. China accounts for 90 percent of North Korea’s external trade. It supplies mostly crude oil and food to North Korea. Without China, North Korea cannot survive. If it wants to, China can make North Korea stop its weapons program. Since it has not, Beijing may secretly respect North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons as strategic leverage.
Beijing sees the North Korean nuclear issue in the context of its relationship with the United States. Washington wants to contain China’s influence in Asia and rebalance its power to sustain its geopolitical weight in the region. It has strengthened ties with Japan and supports Southeast Asian countries that are in conflict with China over territories in the South China Sea. North Korea is important in this equation. China formally backs the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula but does not want to go all-out to prevent North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
There is also a theory that Beijing isn’t deterring North Korea’s nuclear program because it simply cannot. Pyongyang vehemently resists Beijing’s offer of nuclear umbrella. It does not entirely trust Beijing. It believes Beijing can shrug off Pyongyang whenever its interests aren’t being met. That is why Pyongyang clings so tightly to nuclear weapons as insurance of its sovereignty. Some Chinese scholars also think China’s influence over North Korea through food and oil supplies isn’t as decisive as people believe. If Beijing cuts off food, it will be the common people, not the elite North Koreans, that would go starving. Hungry masses would cross the border in search of food, causing a refugee crisis along the border regions in China. China saw a flood of North Koreans during the Arduous March of the late 1990s.
What about oil? China cut off oil supplies to North Korea to draw it back to multilateral nuclear talks in 2003 and 2006. Since then, North Korea has learned its lesson. It diversified its oil supply lines. In 2013 alone, North Korea imported $36.89 million worth oil from Russia. It can sell its iron ore resources to secure the oil it needs. This suggests that China cannot entirely control North Korea.
Since 2009, China has been experimenting with a new approach towards North Korea. It has separated nuclear affairs and other affairs concerning North Korea. Since it cannot stop Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons, it attempted to use increased economic aid and cooperation in order to encourage progressive changes in the regime. Beijing believes this is a clever way to treat both the problem and its symptoms. But such a prescription does not really work. It does little to solve the nuclear problem if China goes on helping North Korea while participating with international sanctions. For any outcome, it must choose either the carrot or the stick, cooperation or punishment.
Pyongyang must realize that its nuclear ambitions are costing too much, and it cannot continue with the nuclear program because its economy is too dependent on trade with China.
Beijing’s fence-sitting does no one any good. If it really opposes North Korea’s nuclear program, it’s time for it to make a clear-cut choice.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 2, Page 28
*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo specialist on China.
by You Sang-chul