Wed, Nov 01, 2006 - Page 8 News List

China's North Korean conundrum

By Sushil Seth

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trip to China hasn't achieved much. North Korea is still adamant about its nuclear ambitions and Beijing remains wary about any dramatic action against Pyongyang to bring home the message.

The atmosphere during Rice's visit was good, and some unattributed Chinese sources sought to give the impression that China was somehow making progress with its difficult neighbor. For instance, Tang Jiaxuan(唐家璇), who visited North Korea as President Hu Jintao's (胡錦濤) special envoy and was received by Kim Jong-il, reportedly told Rice that, "Fortunately, my visit this time has not been in vain."

There was no elaboration of what he meant by this.

Of course, there have been unconfirmed reports that Kim told the envoy there would be no further tests. It was even reported that Kim apologized for the first test.

According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, "Kim said during a meeting with Tang that North Korea would not conduct an additional nuclear test unless the US harasses the North."

Yonhap also quoted a source as saying that, "Kim also promised that North Korea would return to the six-way talks in the near future as long as the US promises to lift financial sanctions after the talks reopen."

At the official level, though, China's Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing (李肇星) would only say that Tang's visit had increased "mutual understanding" and he discussed how to revive the six-party talks.

Apparently, China has been trying to create an impression of some forward movement by encouraging or floating these rumors. The fact, though, is, as Rice said in Moscow (where she went after her China-visit), that: "Councillor Tang did not tell me that Kim Jong-il either apologized for the test or said that he would never test again."

In other words, if the US was hoping to swing China to its position of hardening the sanctions regime, Rice's visit was futile.

As before, China continues to push its own central role by way of six-party talks. But so far, the on-off six-party talks have even failed to prevent Pyongyang from testing a nuclear device.

The US is not ruling out returning to the six-party forum and for the North to re-engage in talks. As Rice said, "The Chinese are emphasizing the need for six-party talks to begin again and for the North to re-engage in talks."

She maintained that the US had no problem with that, but Washington will not lift sanctions to accommodate Pyongyang.

The arguments thus keep going around in a circle, without any serious analysis of whether or not the six-party talks, if resumed, would go anywhere. Which, on the basis of the record so far, is not at all encouraging.

Indeed, according to prominent Chinese security analyst Shen Dingli (沈丁立) of Fudan University in Shanghai, "The core of the issue is not nuclear weapons." In his view, "The core of the issue is peace and stability."

Beijing fears that any toppling of the Kim Jong-il regime might not only create a flood of refugees into China, but could even lead to the installation of a pro-US government, thus complicating its security problems.

In some way, Shen brings in Taiwan as a factor in Beijing's Korea policy. According to him, "China must continue to look at North Korea through the prism of Taiwan.

You cannot expect China to abandon its ally completely while the US continues to back Taiwan and allow the independence movement to thrive there."

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