China is Key to N.Korea

      February 06, 2010 08:51

      Jack Pritchard

      China has always been key to resolving the North Korean nuclear problem, but now it is absolutely essential that Beijing lives up to its commitments or faces being held accountable for a lost opportunity that could result in a permanent nuclear North Korea.

      Conventional wisdom has long (and incorrectly) held that if China simply applied pressure on North Korea, Pyongyang would be forced to abandon its nuclear weapons programs. Beijing does provide its neighbor with the food, fuel and fertilizer that prevent the Kim Jong-il regime from collapsing, and it is true that if support were cut off, North Korea would find it very difficult to survive in the long term.

      But Beijing's national interests dictate that it avoids rather than precipitates a crisis on its border. Three years ago, in my book "Failed Diplomacy," I wrote: "Beijing may avoid applying too much leverage on Pyongyang for what is only a second-tier national security priority for China (North Korea's nuclear weapons program) because it fears that doing so could only have a negative impact on its top national security priority (regional stability)." That rationale is still valid today. Unfortunately, Pyongyang understands China's position and has time and again correctly predicted that Beijing will not take regime-threatening action. However much we may wish that Beijing would force North Korea to denuclearize, it is just that -- wishful thinking.

      After North Korea conducted its second nuclear test last May, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1874 which, for the first time, held a promise of impacting North Korea effectively. We witnessed several instances where suspect North Korean cargo was turned back or confiscated. For a brief moment last year it looked as though Pyongyang was moving closer to a decision to return to six-party talks with the barest hope that it might also conclude that denuclearization could no longer be avoided.

      The potential effects of the resolution combined with a deliberate and principled approach to North Korea by both the Obama and Lee administrations seemed to give Pyongyang pause. North Korea reversed its overt hostility toward South Korea and sought bilateral meetings with Washington. By late September, it looked as though Pyongyang was finally concerned that it was on the wrong path and needed to do something about it. A visiting North Korean delegation to New York in September was said to be desperate for the U.S. special representative on North Korea policy to visit Pyongyang. That air of desperation suggested that Pyongyang could be on the verge of making concessions regarding its nuclear program. The solidarity of the other five members of the six-party talks was a major factor in Pyongyang's assessment. China's participation in the development and passage of the resolution was a significant contributor to the solidarity of the five. But things changed in early October.

      Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Pyongyang. Because of the importance and relative rarity of the premier's visit, China treated it in normal protocol fashion, providing substantial gifts to mark the occasion and the 60th anniversary of bilateral relations. While Beijing did not intend its largesse to be an escape mechanism for Pyongyang to avoid returning to six-party talks, that was precisely the result. During a trip to Pyongyang in late November, I got the distinct impression that Pyongyang had been given a new lease of life and no longer exuded a sense of desperation.

      In that meeting, North Korean officials previewed their upcoming negotiating tactic of demanding a peace treaty before they could seriously discuss denuclearization. I attribute this change in attitude to the assistance (and perceived assurances) Pyongyang received during Wen's visit a month earlier.    

      The Chinese are quick to deny that they did anything more than what protocol required, but the consequences for denuclearization prospects may turn out to be negative and long-lasting. What is needed now is a renewed commitment by Beijing to carry out all its obligations under Resolution 1874. If there is to be any hope of getting Pyongyang to realize it is on a dangerous and unsustainable path, any perceived wavering or inaction with regard to the full application of the sanctions on Beijing's part must be corrected.

      I am not suggesting that Beijing applies pressure to bring down the North Korean regime. Rather, I am calling on Beijing to transparently and as robustly as possible fulfill the obligations it took on by voting for the specific sanctions contained in the resolution.

      While Beijing may be instrumental in ultimately resolving the North Korean nuclear problem, the Obama administration has a role to play as well. Its appointment of an ambassador-level sanctions coordinator and the early work performed by the coordinator were admirable. If there is any hope that Beijing will fully implement its UN sanctions obligations, the administration needs to fill the vacant sanctions coordinator position with a person of the same caliber and send that individual to Beijing immediately.   

      A large part of the problem is misperception by Pyongyang. Beijing has the capacity to correct that problem without compromising its own national security interests. The Obama administration can help. Failure to do so may result in the temporary nuclear North Korean problem becoming permanent.

      By Jack Pritchard, the President of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, D.C. and former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect the position of the Korea Economic Institute.

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