Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2648

China holds key to Korean crisis

By Chandra Mohan - Syndicate Features

It was like a tragedy happening in front of hapless bystanders. When North Korea started giving sufficient hints that it was pursuing a nuclear weapons programme much of the world could do nothing more than to express its concerns. A week before its October 9 nuclear test, Pyongyang was more explicit in announcing that it was ready for testing a nuclear device. The indignation in many capitals, especially Washington, was more intense but the US thought the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il, was bluffing. Then after serving a 20-minute notice to Beijing, North Korea finally made the Big Bang on the morning of October 9.

The world did not know what to do except to become more livid with Kim. But the world was still far from being united in deciding what to do next to contain the ‘rogue’ state from continuing with its nuclear weapons programme the fruits of which could well reach multi-billion terror companies like the Al Qaeda. After a great deal of behind the scene manoeuvring that lasted almost a week, the UN security council finally managed to pass a ‘unanimous’ resolution on October 14 imposing sanctions on North Korea that included a clause that allows inspection of ocean-bound cargo to and from North Korea—a clause that China did not like but finally agreed to support to avoid being accused of sabotaging a strong and appropriate response to the North Korean nuclear test.

Since then China is said to be getting seriously into the act to try and restrain ‘both sides’ which in effect means the US on one side and North Korea on the other from doing anything that might make the situation in the Korean peninsula more serious than it already is. Admittedly, had China taken a more serious note of the nuclear ambitions of North Korea the latest international crisis might not have arisen. The problem is if China opposed North Korea’s pursuit of its nuclear goal with nothing more than some proliferation platitudes, the US thought its bullying tactics would be enough to tame what is after all an impoverished third world nation.

The US has regarded North Korea—the Democratic Republic of North Korea—as a threat to its national security ever since it came into existence in 1950. The Stalinist type family that has been at the helm of affairs in Pyongyang for over half a century has certainly been hostile to Washington. There were brief interludes when the US talked to the North Koreans, raising hopes of an end to their mutual hostility. When that appeared unlikely, the US got tougher and tougher, leading to some stringent financial and trading sanctions against Pyongyang.

The fact of the matter is the rulers of North Korea were not ready to surrender before the US. They looked around and discovered that China was ready to meet some of their vital needs like food and energy aid—enough to prevent chances of a mass uprising. In due course of time, South Korea, otherwise a firmly pro-American neighbour also decided that it was not good to remain in perpetual tension with its northern neighbour. It adopted a ‘sunshine’ policy of engagement and discovered that the move enjoyed considerable domestic support. Add to this trade ties with Japan, howsoever limited, and the old links with the Russia, going back to the Soviet Union days, and the picture that emerges is that US-inspired sanctions did not exactly leave North Korea completely orphaned even though life for the ordinary people in the country was hard and millions reportedly died due to food shortages.

Of all these ‘friends’ and the neighbour, it is China which has been the real ‘life-line’ of North Korea, with its continuous supply of bare essentials. More than that, notwithstanding the coyness (is it shyness) of the West to acknowledge, China helped North Korea sharpen its military teeth. This is the reason why North Korea was able to develop an effective missile programme which it later bartered with Pakistan, under the aegis of the AQ Khan black-market, to acquire nuclear weapons technology. It was ironic that North Korea has emerged as some kind of a military power even as its population remains abysmally poor.

Without the Chinese props, the North Korean regime might well have collapsed long while ago. That, it is said, is exactly what Beijing doesn’t want. A ‘stable’ North Korea is what it is interested in though, of late, Beijing has begun to say that it wants to see a ‘denuclearised’ Korea as well. Beijing even joined Washington in raising a loud chorus against the North Korean nuclear test but is not willing to use its influence to make North Korea renounce its nuclear policies.

One plausible reason why China does not want the North Korean regime to collapse may be the fear that would result in a huge influx of refugees into the northern region of the country, which are apparently yet to catch up with the prosperity noticeable in southern China. This is not a new concern though. It dates back to 1990 when it started erecting a fence on its North Korean borders. Given the health of the Chinese economy, it should be able to absorb the shock of refugees far more easily than poorer nations in the world have in the past. During the Bangladesh struggle for independence India was host to millions of refugees and the cost of feeding them was borne by the people of India, which was just another third world country in those days.

If the world is stuck with Kim, then the only way to ease the tension in the region would appear to be to bring him round to the negotiating table. For almost a year now, the six-nation talks have remained suspended after reaching a. The talks reached a deadlock mainly because Pyongyang insists that the US first lift its sanctions and the US demands an unequivocal assurance from North Korea that it will abrogate its nuclear programme. Pyongyang desires direct talks but Washington says no, no.

Though some hopes are generated that the stalled six-party talks would be resumed soon, the key to breaking the logjam seems to lie with China and to some extent South Korea. China has all along been refusing to use its full leverage on North Korea for fear that it would only make Kim more intransigent. Kim in any case is showing scant respect to even the Chinese.

In July this year, he defied the world and even friendly advice from China to go ahead with long-range missile tests. China expressed its anger by voting for a Security Council resolution that imposed weapons-related sanctions. But it continued its food and oil supplies to North Korea so that its people do not suffer ‘difficulties’.

After North Korea’s October 9 nuclear tests China again voted for the Security Council resolution against North Korea. But doubts persist if China would be sincere in adhering to the inspection clause. North Korea has declared that any forcible inspection of its shipping cargo would amount to an ‘aggression’. If China is willing to inspect, as it says it is already doing, the cargo that is transported to and from North Korea through the land route, why is it reluctant to inspection of contraband coming in ships? China wants to remain North Korea’s staunchest ally and friend and yet it wants the world to believe that it supports a sanctions regime against Kim Jon-Il. Such ambiguous approach is unlikely to make Kim change his ways—or his nuclear policy.

- Syndicate Features -

Share this


.