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.

Evan Vucci/AP
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.

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.

“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

At the same time, Mr. Park points out, the Chinese officials responsible for relations with North Korea are unlikely to be sympathetic to US concerns.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry is not in charge of relations with North Korea. Instead, the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party runs things, liaising with the ruling Korean Workers’ Party.

China’s current ambassador to Pyongyang, Liu Hongcai, was deputy head of the party’s International Department for seven years before taking up his post earlier this year. He reports to the head of the department, who reports directly to Zhou Yongkang, the member of the nine man Standing Committee – the party’s top organ – responsible for security.

Such officials are likely to be more loyal and sympathetic to their North Korean party comrades, Park suggests, than open to American cajoling.

They are also extremely wary of doing anything that might undermine the North Korean authorities to the point of regime change, argues Prof. Gurtov. “They don’t want to give the impression of being a big power that bullies its allies, and they are not going to deliver North Korea to the Americans,” he says.

Then there is the matter of US-China relations

Nor is this the best time for Washington to be asking for Beijing’s help. Indeed, “the chances now of China doing what the US wants are worse than they have been for a long time,” Gurtov says, as relations between the two grow more tense.

China’s response to North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island two weeks ago has been remarkably flaccid. Beijing has not condemned the action, but only regretted the loss of life. This contrasts with China’s vigorous condemnation of North Korean nuclear tests in the past, Prof. Sun points out.

“The logic behind China’s soft reaction,” he says, lies in Beijing’s resentment at recent US naval exercises off its coast, and in its recent territorial dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu islands (known in Japanese as the Senkaku), which makes it especially understanding of North Korea’s claims to the island it shelled.

China also resents being singled out as being responsible for the Korean crisis, Sun says. The current South Korean government’s hard line toward the North, reversing a decade of “sunshine policy” cooperation, and Washington’s reluctance to cut a grand security bargain with Pyongyang are also to blame, he argues.

“It is critical for South Korea and the United States to review their policies,” Sun adds. “They have to think about what’s next as well as asking China to do something.”

“The problem is that we have so few tools at our disposal” with which to influence North Korean behavior worries Sneider. “The only country with any leverage left is China, and they have never been willing to use it.”

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