Why China Won't Lean Hard on North Korea

To listen to Secretary of State Colin Powell, his recent visit to Beijing was a big success. On his three-day tour of Japan, China, and South Korea, a top goal was to persuade Chinese leaders to use their influence to rein in North Korea, which is threatening to ramp up its nuclear weapons program. "[The Chinese] are anxious to play as helpful a role as they can," Powell said at a Beijing press conference on Feb. 24. But "they prefer to play their role quietly."

Alas, it looks like too quietly. Even as North Korea continues to take provocative steps, such as launching a missile over the Sea of Japan on Feb. 24, Beijing seems intent on avoiding actions that would offend its volatile neighbor. The official press continues to parrot Pyongyang's demand that the U.S. sit down for bilateral talks, rather than in a forum that also includes China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea, as Washington wants. "I am pessimistic," says Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at People's University in Beijing. "This is one of the most difficult crises to solve since World War II. This will be a sustained crisis."

In theory, Beijing's influence on Pyongyang should be strong. China supplies 70% of North Korea's energy and much of its food. But 50 years of close ties between China and North Korea make it difficult for Beijing to put pressure on Pyongyang. China's longtime cautiousness about infringing on another nation's sovereignty also helps explain why Beijing officials aren't coming up with original proposals to solve the crisis. Moreover, no new initiatives are likely at a time when Beijing's top leadership is changing. At the National People's Congress in March, relatively inexperienced new Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao is to replace Jiang Zemin, an old foreign policy hand, as President. "There is confusion over responsibility," says People's University's Shi. "It has slowed the process of decision-making."

To the Americans, this go-slow approach seems like folly. The North Koreans could produce up to six nuclear weapons within months if they start reprocessing uranium. Those nukes will sit right at China's doorstep. "China is in denial," says a Bush Administration official.

But besides the structural reasons limiting its action, Beijing seems prepared to make an enormous bet: that America will come to the bargaining table before the Chinese really have to choose sides. That's risky, of course, but Beijing policymakers see the prospect of a North Korean economic collapse as a more immediate threat than a possible nuclear escalation. Applying sanctions to Pyongyang, they reason, could trigger a crisis in North Korea that sends tens of thousands more refugees into the mainland's economically weak northeast. Besides, Beijing is convinced that the North Koreans are so cut off from reality that any rash action by China, the U.S., or South Korea could prompt an over-the-top response.

So Beijing is holding to the hope that Washington will eventually agree to direct talks with Pyongyang and even grant North Korea a security guarantee. To nudge the U.S. along, China has offered to host talks between the two sides.

Nice stuff, but probably not enough. Maybe the prospect of a local arms race will have an impact. "Japan is talking about the right to preempt [militarily against Pyongyang]," says the Bush official. "That will get China to focus." The hope is that Beijing will focus fast.

By Dexter Roberts in Beijing, with Stan Crock in Washington

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