The prospects for continued peace in north Asia depend on the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear status, which resume in Beijing today after 15 stormy political months on the Korean peninsula.
The dynamics have shifted dramatically since the last talks. When Pyongyang tested its first nuclear bomb two months ago, defying pleas from Beijing, it alienated itself from its only ally.
The extent of that alienation has been revealed in essays by China’s leading strategic thinkers. The bitter sense of betrayal felt in China about its communist neighbour, on whose behalf 360,000 soldiers, mainly volunteers, died during the Korean war 53 years ago, sets the tone for the extraordinarily frank essays in China Security.
These essays, in a special publication by the Washington-based World Security Institute, discuss, often bleakly, the far-reaching implications of North Korea’s nuclear program for China’s foreign policy and the balance of power within China.
Zhang Liangui, professor of international strategic research at the influential Central Party School in Beijing, says that “having crossed the nuclear threshold, it is unlikely Pyongyang will give up its possession of such weapons”. China “is the biggest loser” from this step.
He says there was a theory that North Korean claims to be developing nuclear weapons were a bluff. That was succeeded, after US President George W.Bush included the country in his “axis of evil”, by a theory that Pyongyang had developed such weapons to deter US invasion.
Neither hypothesis was accurate, says Professor Zhang. Despite signing treaties on non-proliferation, “North Korea never stopped its nuclear program” from the 1960s, and instead kept buying time. “The balance of comprehensive national strength began to tip in the early 1970s, and widened dramatically with the South’s economic power growing 30 times greater than the North,” he says.
“North Korean leaders see mastering nuclear weapons as the only possible measure to dispel the fear of failure in this competition, and even possibly to take the initiative in unifying the Korean peninsula though force.”
Successful nuclear tests meet domestic political needs and explain a stagnant economy and the worsening poverty of its people, since nuclear weapons are regarded as a symbol of national strength, Professor Zhang says.
He views the nuclear program as leverage for practical gains. “North Korea is eager to break the ice and improve its relations with the US, but has been given the cold shoulder.”
Chinese analysts are concerned that Washington is starting to talk to Pyongyang, and that in the future it might be Beijing that gets frozen out.
Evidence of some shift in that direction came yesterday with news that Christopher Hill, a top US envoy, would meet one-on-one with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan, ahead of the resumption of talks between the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia.
But Professor Zhang is sceptical of the six-way talks, saying another round is unlikely to achieve practical results, with Pyongyang reluctant to discuss giving up its nuclear program.
North Korea’s “next task is to force the international community to accept it as a nuclear power. It will exploit those countries that fear a showdown, giving them an ultimatum: accept the facts and recognise its nuclear status, or persist in their anti-proliferation stand, which means war”.
Professor Zhang says the narrow Korean peninsula, with 70million people living in 570,000sqkm, is land for habitation, not testing atomic bombs.
He sees the biggest winner, after the North Korean regime, as Japan – unless China acts firmly against Pyongyang. “If China continues its ambiguous policies on the North Korean nuclear issue, the US will encourage Japan to become nuclearised.”
Japan would become “a central force in a new East Asian military alliance” including Australia, South Korea, Taiwan and southeast Asian countries.
“China is cornered diplomatically. A North Korea with nuclear weapons is not in China’s interests or the common interests of humankind, and even an ambiguous attitude will result in China being denounced by the international community. On the other hand, unequivocal opposition towards North Korea is bound to cause vicious reprisals.”
Shen Dingli, the executive director of the Institute of International Studies at Shanghai’s leading Fudan University, says that from China’s strategic perspective, Taiwan and North Korea are intrinsically linked.
With a shared border of 1,400km, North Korea acts as a guard post for China, keeping at bay the tens of thousands of US troops stationed in South Korea, allowing China to focus on Taiwanese independence while providing North Korea with the means to survive.
But he warns: “If China fails to handle the matter with deftness, there is a real chance North Korea will be cornered into provoking a war with the US, a conflict that might eventually lead to North Korea’s defeat, which would be disastrous for China. Such an outcome could lead to Japan, South and North Korea and Taiwan all aligning with the US. In that case, China’s security pressure regarding Taiwanese independence would be hard to bear.”
Mr Shen agrees with Professor Zhang that “it is unlikely North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons”, and says it may previously have used the six-party talks to buy time to develop them. China’s hosting of the talks, pressuring North Korea to abandon its weapons and undercutting its chances of direct meetings with the US, might cause Pyongyang to see Beijing as a “saboteur of its core national interests”, he says.
Mr Shen believes it is “virtually impossible to fundamentally improve North Korea-US relations while President Bush is in office”, so Pyongyang can only concentrate on improving its nuclear weapon development.
If North Korea becomes a responsible nuclear nation, not aiding terrorists or engaging in money-laundering or drug trafficking, “it is bound to achieve normal relations with the US”.
At the same time, relations between China and South Korea are deepening because of the North Korea issue, he says.
Zhu Feng, director of the international security program at Beijing University, says a recent opinion poll shows 44per cent of Chinese people dislike North Korea more than any other nation. “The Chinese leadership now understands it may have deluded itself about the Kim Jong-il Government pursuing a good-neighbourly policy that Pyongyang would gradually be won over by China’s kindness,” he says.
Mr Zhu says that while Beijing’s support of UN resolutions against Pyongyang’s nuclear testing is seen in North Korea as “an act of treachery by its socialist big brother”, when the test happened, “in Beijing, ire turned into fury. It was no less than a slap in China’s face”.
The important meeting of the central committee of the Communist Party three months ago proclaimed that a nuclear North Korea was a formidable challenge to China’s “core interests” – a phrase previously used only about Taiwan independence.
Originally Posted HERE