Wed, Aug 09, 2006 - Page 8 News List

China walks tightrope on N Korea

By Mrinal Menon

North Korea's recent missile tests have highlighted the complexity of political relations in Northeast Asia. The launches have elicited different reactions from each of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's (DPRK) neighbors. One of the most notable developments has been a subtle shift in China's policy of engagement toward North Korea. The People's Republic of China's (PRC) new assessment of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's government could be profoundly influential on regional developments and vital to the resolution of the current crisis.

In the month after the missile tests, the Chinese mood toward North Korea has shifted from being rather lenient to moderately distrustful. The PRC's ties with North Korea are more expansive than those of any other nation.

Beginning with its aid to the beleaguered communist state during the Korean war, China has long provided the DPRK with material and diplomatic support. Aside from supplying Kim's regime with enough fuel and food to prevent a state collapse, the PRC has often been the most vocal party calling for restraint when dealing with the rogue state.

While China is undoubtedly wary of its volatile, erratic neighbor, Beijing is more concerned about the stability of the North Korean state than the status of the DPRK's nuclear program. The PRC has not been willing to implement measures that could lead to North Korea's collapse and a massive refugee crisis on China's northeast border.

The Chinese have usually conducted most of their diplomacy with North Korea quietly and from the sidelines. Therefore, North Korea's missile tests represented a slap in the face to Beijing, which had publicly warned Kim not to take such action. Furthermore, following the tests, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) issued a rare public expression of concern over North Korea's refusal to re-enter talks. Nevertheless, in the days following the launches, the PRC repeatedly called for restraint, pledging to veto any UN Security Council resolution mentioning the threat of sanctions.

China also joined South Korea in severely criticizing Japan for floating the idea of a pre-emptive military strike. Yet, a little more than a week later, Beijing supported a modified resolution that all but explicitly invoked punitive sanctions.

Furthermore, China has frozen North Korean funds in the Bank of China in Macao and agreed to make it easier for North Korean refugees to seek political asylum in the US.

This slight, but important, diplomatic shift can be seen as Beijing's reassessment of its own influence over Pyongyang. Despite its economic support of the North Korean regime, Beijing seems to have very little sway over military decisions like the missile tests. Chinese diplomats could not persuade North Korea to return to the six-party talks, and according to many reports, were received less than amiably in Pyongyang.

The failure of China's efforts to re-engage North Korea within the six-party framework represents an embarrassment to Chinese officials, who had requested the rest of the world to place its faith in Chinese diplomacy.

North Korean intransigence thus far does not bode well for diplomacy. The DPRK has refused to return to the six-party talks unless the US lifts long-standing sanctions against it. Pyongyang has also prematurely walked out of the inter-Korean talks and refused to discuss its nuclear program with ASEAN member states.

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