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Why China will not do as Clinton asks on North Korea

China's push for more dialogue and less pressure on North Korea reflects that fact China is more concerned with the economic stability of its neighbor than its nuclear program.

By Staff writer / December 7, 2010

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (c.) gestures during a news conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara (l.) and South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan at the State Department in Washington, Monday, Dec. 6.

Evan Vucci/AP

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Beijing

American hopes that Beijing will join US allies in putting pressure on North Korea are likely to prove idle dreams, rendering a united international response to the erratic state’s recent attack on its neighbor near impossible, say Chinese and foreign observers.

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“The chances are close to zero,” predicts Mel Gurtov, editor of the quarterly Asian Perspective, that China will heed US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s call on Monday that it “send a clear, unmistakable message to North Korea” to end its “provocative actions.”

“China prefers quiet diplomacy,” points out Sun Zhe, professor of international affairs at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. “But its messages are not strong enough” to rein in its awkward ally, he fears.

Asked on Tuesday how China might answer US calls for clearer pressure on Pyongyang – echoed by the South Korean and Japanese Foreign Ministers after they met Ms. Clinton in Washington on Monday – Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu insisted that “the key to resolving the issue is dialog not confrontation.”

China's interests

“China is acting in its own interests, and [its] interests and US interests are not necessarily the same,” says Daniel Sneider, an expert on Korea at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Center

Though China has been leading international efforts to stop North Korea from going nuclear, “[its] top priority right now is stabilizing” the economically fragile country, whose leader, Kim Jong-il, recently launched a process to hand power over to his third son, Kim Jong-un, says John Park, an analyst at the US Institute of Peace.

“Denuclearization is the number two priority,” Dr. Park adds. That does not match concerns in the US, where “nuclear nonproliferation is primary” says Mr. Sneider.

Party comrades before US concerns

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