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China's No-Big-Deal Stance on N. Korea

By Richard Halloran

The China Daily, an official newspaper in Beijing, indicated last week that Chinese leaders are reasonably comfortable with North Korea's atomic ambitions, including its recent detonation of a nuclear device.

Under the headline "All quiet on China's northeastern front," the paper reported that life was normal along the Yalu River, which separates China from North Korea and is only 150 kilometers (90 miles) from the North Korean nuclear test site.

"Tourists were strolling along the riverside avenue and riding on boats," the newspaper said, "swimmers were frolicking in the river before it gets too cold, and cargo trucks were rumbling across the Friendship Bridge that spans the Yalu River which marks the border between China and the DPRK," or the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, the official name of North Korea.

China's stance on North Korea's nuclear aspirations is pertinent because many Asia hands agree that only Beijing could mount enough pressure to get North Korea's "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il, to give up his nuclear weapons. Only the Chinese have the political, economic, and military might, if they chose to apply it, to force Pyongyang to turn back after more than a decade of research and investment aimed at acquiring nuclear arms.

Thus the underlying reason for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's journey these days to Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia is somehow to persuade the Chinese to get tough with the North Koreans and get them to relinquish their nuclear arsenal-in-the-making.

Despite all Secretary Rice's brave and even constructive words, however, her mission was most likely doomed from the start for a fundamental reason: America's priorities are not China's priorities.

China's leaders have given no sign that they are concerned about a nuclear attack from North Korea, not when they have long lived with a nuclear-armed Russia to the north, a nuclear-armed India to the south, and a nuclear-armed America in the sea and air to the east. Moreover, they sit atop a police state that so far has been impervious to terrorists who might someday acquire a nuclear device.

Further, Chinese leaders, beginning with President Hu Jintao, are keen to maintain political stability in North Korea, which means supporting Kim Jong Il. Chinese officials have often told U.S. officials privately that they will keep the stricken North Korean economy on life support so long as necessary because they want to avert a flood of refugees crossing the Yalu in the wake of political turmoil.

The Chinese have also asserted that they have limited influence on the feisty North Koreans. Most U.S. officials have read that as meaning the Chinese are not willing to apply their considerable clout to Pyongyang but are content to let Kim Jong Il keep the U.S. at bay.

After North Korea's nuclear test, said a China hand, "nothing has changed."

In contrast, President Bush has been far more interested in North Korea's nuclear plans than in Kim Jong Il's governance. The president was quoted by the Associated Press last week as warning North Korea: "If we get intelligence that they're about to transfer a nuclear weapon, we would stop the transfer." He did not say how.

In addition, hints have started to come from Washington suggesting that the Bush Administration would favor what is euphemistically called "regime change" in Pyongyang. In plain words, that means overthrowing Kim Jong Il, an act on which the Chinese would not look kindly.

A little over a year ago, the then-Deputy Secretary of State, Robert Zoellick, gave an address that was billed as a definitive statement of President Bush's policy toward China. Zoellick appealed to China to become a "responsible stakeholder" in the international arena.

He singled out Beijing's stance on Pyongyang's nuclear program, saying that China's "most pressing opportunity is North Korea." Zoellick contended that "China should share our interest in effective and comprehensive compliance" by North Korea to help prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

A different U.S. approach to China last week came from Aaron Friedberg, formerly a national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, who advocates a hard line on China. Friedberg argued in the Washington Post that, by failing to side with the U.S. on the North Korean nuclear issue, the Chinese "must be made to understand that they are endangering not only the security and stability of Northeast Asia but also their future relations with the United States.

Neither the appeal nor the threat, however, has yet seem to have registered with the Chinese.

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at

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