Why the US and China differ on North Korea

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 February, 2003, 12:00am

For several months, American officials have been prodding China to use its influence to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. 'China should step up and defuse the situation,' one official in Washington said to me in December. 'That's what a great power would do - exert its influence and defuse the problem.' Americans are becoming increasingly impatient that the Chinese seem reluctant to do so.

The problem is that the US wants the Chinese to behave like Americans, to apply pressure, to twist arms, to threaten and to cajole. To China, however, this is to act like a hegemon, a charge it levels regularly at the US.

Moreover, noninterference in another country's internal affairs is a sacred tenet for China. It is fearful of setting any precedents that may allow other countries to interfere in China's domestic affairs.

But it is known that China is unhappy with North Korea and their relations have been strained since China normalised relations with South Korea a decade ago.

The rift between the two countries was obvious last October when North Korea appointed a Chinese-Dutch businessman, Yang Bin, head of the newly established Sinuiju Special Administrative Region. Before Mr Yang could take up his post, the Chinese authorities arrested him for tax evasion and other economic crimes.

Later that month, when President Jiang Zemin met President George W. Bush in Texas, he said China was 'completely in the dark' where North Korea's nuclear programme was concerned, underlining not only the distance between China and North Korea, but also his disapproval of the latter's nuclear ambitions.

And when North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in January, China - unusually - indicated its displeasure by expressing regret. China's position on the Korean nuclear issue has been spelled out by foreign ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue.

First, China wants a peaceful and stable Korean peninsula. Second, it hopes to see a nuclear-free peninsula. Finally, it believes 'relevant parties' should solve the nuclear issue through dialogue.

Soon, however, China may have to take a much clearer stand. The board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency is to meet on February 12 to discuss the North Korean nuclear issue, and may refer the case to the UN Security Council. China is a member of the board and a permanent member of the Security Council, with the right of veto. It is doubtful if China would vote for sanctions against North Korea. The most likely Chinese action in that eventuality is an abstention.

From China's standpoint, the US and North Korea are both to blame for the breakdown of the Agreed Framework, signed in 1994. While North Korea violated the agreement by setting up a covert nuclear programme, the US failed to lift economic sanctions against North Korea and to provide a security guarantee.

The differences between the Chinese and American approach to the North Korean issue is analysed by David Shambaugh, of George Washington University, in a perceptive article in The Washington Quarterly.

He argues that while the US is focused on defusing the nuclear problem, China has a more long-term approach, which is aimed at avoiding the collapse of the North Korean regime - an event that would have a major adverse impact on China by triggering a flood of refugees into its northeastern provinces.

Instead, he says, China's priorities are to ensure the survival of the regime and its reform and, in the long run, bringing about the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. The defusing of the nuclear problem, while important, assumes a lower priority in the Chinese scheme of things.

Seen in this light, China's reluctance to use strongarm tactics against North Korea is more understandable. While the US may be happy to see the collapse of one of the 'axis of evil' countries, China wants to do all it can to prevent this from happening.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

Email: frankching1@aol.com