China's North Korea strategy hemmed in by nucler test (News Feature)
By Andreas Landwehr May 25, 2009, 12:50 GMT
Beijing - North Korea's latest nuclear test is a strong blow to China's attempts to get its stubborn neighbour to consider nuclear disarmament, according to a Chinese expert on North Korea.
Several experts have begun to question whether North Korea ever intended to give up its nuclear weapons programme.
The programme 'is a card for the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea),' said Cai Jian, an expert on North Korea at Shanghai's Fudan University.
'They want to gain security assurances and economic assistance by playing this card,' he said. Since North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006, people realized that not only did Pyongyang see the nuclear issue as 'a card to play,' but also had ambitions to become a nuclear power, he said.
As the only country that North Korea considers an ally, China has a unique role to play as an interlocutor between North Korea and the rest of the world. But that role also puts China into a dilemma.
Monday's test indicates that China's hands-off approach to North Korea, attempting to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear programme with persuasion and encouragement, is not working.
Nonetheless, despite calls for a harder line against Pyongyang, China watchers say Beijing will likely continue to walk a path of moderation.
'China's position on the Korean issue is, first, to keep the DPRK stable and, second, to realize denuclearization in north-east Asia. China's reaction will be based on these two points,' said Cai.
China's strong economic ties to North Korea might give it the ability to apply some pressure. No country has more trade with North Korea. Trade climbed last year by 41 per cent to 2.8 billion dollars.
That might be very little compared with China's 186 billion dollars of trade with South Korea, but the trade is vital to North Korea, with its huge population teetering on starvation.
Thus, applying too much pressure could destabilize the impoverished nation.
Plus, at the end of the day, China would still like to assist North Korea.
'China needs to balance stability and non-proliferation. This is not easy. This is really delicate,' he said, noting that China's rulers fear nothing more than streams of starving refugees from North Korea.
At the same time, a nuclear test about 100 kilometres from China's border can only be viewed as a provocation, even if the test was designed to draw the attention of US President Barack Obama.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has used the test to once again prove that he has no fear of China, especially since China has given him no reason to fear it. He has now given offense to China and let the most recent Chinese charm offensive stagnate.
That's all the more shocking as this is the year that the two countries are celebrating 60 years of diplomatic ties with the proclamation of a year of friendship. Both sides were to trade visits between high-ranking officials. Now those plans might come to naught.
Instead, it took China's Foreign Ministry more than nine hours to craft a response to the blast. When it finally came out, the response sounded helpless, reverting to China's old tack of calling for the resumption of negotiations on demobilization of North Korea's nuclear programme.