Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Analysis: The China Card in the N. Korea Game



Analysis: The China Card in the N. Korea Game


Efforts by the international community to curb North Korea’s nuclear aspirations can succeed only with the support of the hermit state’s historic supporter, China, experts said.

The question is: Will Beijing exert its economic and military power over Pyongyang — and if not, why not?

“No policy can succeed while China is objecting, and any policy will be weak if China is not cooperating,” said Peter Woolley, an Asian security specialist at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. “While many in the U.S. argue whether to lay this problem at the feet of the Clinton administration or the Bush administration, it belongs, if anywhere, at the feet of the Chinese government. They have been irresponsible for many years by opposing any serious action against North Korea. Also to blame in some measure is the South Korean government, which often seems to be more concerned with Japanese arms than with North Korean arms.”

North Korea declared that a U.N. resolution to adopt sanctions was a “declaration of war,” but such declarations over the years have been a standard response to any efforts by the international community to punish Pyongyang.

China, along with Russia, were the two leading global powers who helped water down the United Nations Security Council resolution that was approved Oct. 14 to sanction North Korea and inspect import and export goods for offensive and nuclear weapons.

And mere hours after the resolution was adopted, the United States, Japan and other nations were calling on U.N. members — particularly China and Russia — to make good on sanctions.

“China partially succeeded in this by softening the language of the U.N. resolution, so that cooperative actions to enforce WMD [weapons of mass destruction]-related embargo can be read as voluntary, as opposed to mandatory,” said Yoichiro Sato of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu. “China has already announced that it would not participate in high-seas inspections of North Korean ships.”

China’s waffling on U.N. sanctions, according to experts, is motivated by two factors.

First, Beijing fears that pressure on the North will cause its collapse. China wants to limit the scope of economic sanctions to those closely linked to weapons of mass destruction to avoid total collapse of the regime. Second, China wants to avoid setting a precedent of U.N.-sanctioned high-seas inspection of ships suspected of transporting WMD-related cargo, argues Sato.

At the core is China’s fear of a reunified Korea. Losing the buffer that has separated pro-Western South Korea from its southern border is something Beijing has actively opposed.

“It is not the ‘hostility’ at its border that China fears, more than changing the balance of power in the region,” said one Korea specialist close to the U.S. State Department. “In the short term, China wants to avoid instability on the Korean Peninsula, but in the mid- to long term, China cares more about its ability to influence [control] the Korean Peninsula. Obviously, a democratic, free-market, open, unified Korea will be closer to Japan and the United States, regardless of whether the formal bilateral alliance remains intact, and this development presents challenges to China’s vision for Asia, which is to be the regional hegemon.”

But “China is hardly uncommital” on the North Korea issue, said Bates Gill, who holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington. “There are numerous public reports — and I suspect behind-the-scenes activities — suggesting they are tightening up on exports and financial transactions, and ‘sending a message.’ Obviously not as much as we would like, but taking steps in the right direction nonetheless.”

Seoul’s Vacillation

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect to the North Korean threat is the reaction of South Korea to the tests.

Seoul appears to be changing its attitude toward North Korea, but not much. Years of facing a potential threat from Pyongyang, in all of its bizarre twists and turns, has left a somewhat jaded South.

“Seoul’s position toward North Korea has changed somewhat in the aftermath of the nuke test, but not completely,” said the Korea specialist. “While President Roh has essentially declared the Sunshine Policy of engagement a failure, it is too early to predict that Seoul will stop engagement all together. There is clear and broad public support for some type of engagement, but clearly not the kind that has been pursued to date.”

Bernard “Bud” Cole, a China specialist at the National War College in Washington, said both Beijing and Seoul are too concerned about destabilizing North Korea to really clamp down.

“In fact, last year at one point, South Korean President Roh indicated that he would advocate continuing South Korean economic relations with North Korea even if the latter proved to have developed nuclear weapons,” Cole said. “Both of these events — nuke detonation but continued economic relations — have apparently come to pass. That may change, if North Korea detonates additional nuclear weapons, but I would not bet on it.”

The Korea specialist argued that South Koreans simply see no alternative: Without some sort of engagement, the greatest fear for South Koreans is that North Korea will collapse, or if driven to complete isolation or desperation, will react violently and create military conflict, the one goal that all South Koreans want to avoid.

“Nevertheless,” the specialist said, “it is clear that Seoul will support some type of sanctions, although it is unclear what those parameters will be.”

Nuke for Sale?

Fears remain that North Korea will be crazy enough to provide nuclear weapons to rogue nations or terrorists. North Korea has a record of developing, producing and exporting missiles for hard currency.

“Some estimates show that the majority of its Scud Mod-C missiles have been exported to the Middle East, raising tensions and arms escalations in the region,” said Lance Gatling, an Asian defense specialist who heads the Tokyo-based Gatling Associates. “Potential scenarios? Selling to a foreign power or organization, maybe one with aspirations to attack Western targets, thus raising the stakes in global terrorism, nuclear proliferation, all for a bit of cash and making a statement against the U.S.”

If North Korea moves to sell nuclear weapons, the United States would be forced to act.

“Should the U.S. decide on the basis of intelligence that North Korea is about to sell/transfer nuclear weapons or materials to terrorist organizations, I would expect a blockade of North Korea, to include interception of North Korean merchant ships,” Cole said. “This would have to be accompanied by a convincing enough case to secure Beijing’s cooperation to secure its border with North Korea.”

Some specialists dismiss the idea that North Korea will provide nuclear weapons to irresponsible parties.

“I think terrorists and rogue nations have known this possibility for many years,” Woolley said. “They won’t come running to the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] after the nuke test as if a sign just went up at a garage sale.”

Even if sanctions do work, the threat of war will remain.

“The more immediate question should be, what are the consequences to the region if the sanctions do work?” the Korea specialist said. “In other words, hopefully, they will pressure North Korea to return to the negotiating table and force it to make the right decision regarding its nuclear programs, but we ought also to be prepared for the negative consequences, i.e., the possibility that conflict could result.”

The Korea specialist argues that the threat of war remains whether North Korea returns to the negotiating table or not. Once the nuclear genie has been released, there is little the world can do to get it back into the bottle. North Korea will be coming to the negotiating table far stronger with a nuclear weapon than without.

Cole said U.S. officials are in a very tough position.

“Although perhaps too subtle a point, I think that the U.S. priority on a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula over a stable North Korea is up against a Chinese priority on a stable NK over a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula,” he said.