Why China will not act on North Korea

The Pak Banker - - OPINION - John Pom­fret

IN his mem­oirs, former US pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush re­counts a story about North Korea and China. In Oc­to­ber 2002, he in­vited China's then-pres­i­dent, Jiang Zemin, to his Texas ranch. North Korea was de­vel­op­ing nu­clear weapons and Bush wanted China's help. Ac­cord­ing to Bush, Jiang told him that "North Korea was my prob­lem, not his." China did noth­ing.

A few months later, Bush tried a dif­fer­ent tack. He told Jiang in Jan­uary 2003 that if North Korea's nu­clear weapons pro­gramme con­tin­ued, the US would not be able to stop Ja­pan from de­vel­op­ing its own nu­clear ar­se­nal. Still noth­ing. A month later, he warned China that if the prob­lem was not solved diplo­mat­i­cally he would con­sider a mil­i­tary strike against North Korea. Only at that point did China re­act. Talks with North Korea were com­menced, but the her­mit king­dom con­tin­ued its nu­clear pro­gramme and last month con­ducted its third nu­clear test.

Bush's mem­oirs pro­vide a les­son to those who be­lieve that China holds the key to the North Korean nu­clear prob­lem - an is­sue that could turn north­east Asia into the most dan­ger­ous re­gion on Earth. From the start, Bei­jing has been a re­luc­tant part­ner with the US on this cri­sis and has shown lit­tle in­ter­est in mak­ing the hard de­ci­sions needed to force Py­ongyang to give up the bomb. To be sure, China worked closely with the US in draft­ing the lat­est UN sanc­tions on North Korea, and some top of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing the grand­son of Chair­man Mao Ze­dong, have openly crit­i­cised Kim Jong Un's regime. China's new Pres­i­dent, Xi Jin­ping, is ru­moured to be open to dif­fer­ent tac­tics, but that does not change the ba­sic is­sue as far as Bei­jing is con­cerned. Sim­ply put, China's lead­ers do not buy the US ar­gu­ment that it is in Bei­jing's in­ter­ests to work with Washington to solve the North Korean nu­clear mess. And if you were a Com­mu­nist Party boss in Bei­jing, you might not ei­ther. The rea­sons are both ide­o­log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal. First, China's main in­ter­est in North Korea is not de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion; it is en­sur­ing that the North Korean government does not fall. While Bei­jing may be ex­as­per­ated with the Kim dy­nasty's un­canny abil­ity to wag China's dog, China will sup­port Py­ongyang be­cause the alternative, a North Korean col­lapse, is worse.

While many South Kore­ans fear the cost of uni­fi­ca­tion with their brothers to the north, China op­poses that even more stri­dently. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees would pour into neigh­bour­ing China. Then China would have to de­ter­mine how to deal with South Korean and US troops who would move to se­cure the North's nu­clear weapons. Bei­jing would also be faced with mil­lions of Korean-Chi­nese in­spired by a new, united home­land. The is­sue of a po­ten­tial North Korean col­lapse is so sen­si­tive that Chi­nese of­fi­cials have de­clined re­peated US en­treaties to dis­cuss sce­nar­ios of how to avoid clashes when and if it hap­pens. Clearly for Bei­jing, the pres­ence of a Com­mu­nist buf­fer state, even an ir­ri­tat­ing one, be­tween China and South Korea re­mains crit­i­cal.

A Korean Penin­sula united un­der the South would pose a huge chal­lenge to China's po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. East Ger­many is the par­al­lel some Chi­nese use when asked why China won't squeeze Py­ongyang: The Soviet Union col­lapsed when the Berlin Wall fell. If the no-man's land sep­a­rat­ing North and South Korea were breached, could the same thing hap­pen to Bei­jing? China has also al­ways be­lieved it nec­es­sary to con­trol at least a part of the Korean Penin­sula.

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