Monday, May 08, 2006

A Chinese Double-Cross?

Are the Chinese playing a double game on the issue of North Korean nuclear disarmament? Syndicated columnist Tom Plate evidently thinks so. In his latest column he suggests darkly a “secret pro-nuclear understanding between Beijing and Pyongyang.”

In other words Beijing tells the world and Washington that it favors a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons, while quietly telling the North Koreans to resist any overtures from the other participants in the Six-Party Talks to dismantle its nuclear program.

The column is filled with heavy loaded words, such as “Big Lie,” “two-faced” “Machiavellian,” “bad faith,” “secret double dealer” and so on, but it is light on specifics. He cites a “nasty rumor” in the aftermath of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent visit to Washington and a sense that Hu’s response on the matter of a nuclear-free Korea was “far less emphatic than Bush’s”.

I have always had a lot of respect for Tom Plate’s work, and he is certainly no knee-jerk China basher, so you have to wonder just what set him off? Surely it couldn’t have been pronouncements of the summit. How can anyone take seriously anything that came out of that misbegotten meeting?

If people think that China is playing a double game, it may be because they have set themselves up for disillusionment by becoming victims of their own rhetoric about how important China is to reaching a resolution of the issue.

It has often been said that China could bring Pyongyang around to an agreement anytime it chose to do so by simply withdrawing aid and trade. This is undoubtedly true, but in fact Beijing has said more than once, openly and upfront, that it will not do this. Nothing two-faced about it.

The Chinese are not particularly worried whether North Korea has an atomic bomb. They don’t believe Pyongyang would be stupid enough to drop one on them. Historically, China has not been concerned about nuclear non-proliferation. Indeed it is a recovering proliferator herself.

The North Korean nuclear program concerns China because it concerns the US. The Chinese worry that it might trigger an American attack on North Korea, something they obviously don’t want, even as the threat of it actually happening recedes.

China’s main interest in hosting the Six-Party talks is to be a good world citizen, reap the prestige that comes in helping broker any diplomatic breakthroughs and garner any rewards that might come its way. Beyond that it is indifferent to whether North Korea has a bomb.

The South Koreans, too, are not overly worried about a North Korean bomb. Deep down they don’t believe that their Korean brothers would ever drop one on them. Seoul is currently obsessed with reconciliation with Pyongyang and will not countenance anything that impedes that goal.

This posture might change if the conservative opposition wins the presidency in late 2007, but I doubt that a new president would do much to alter the situation except to possibly put more emphasis on human rights. The “sunshine” policy initiated by Kim Dae Jung is, I think, too popular to be abandoned no matter who is president..

One might think that of the six parties to the negotiations, Japan would take the strongest stand, having the most to fear. After all, the North Koreans have fired ballistic missiles in their direction in the past.

But I was in Japan a year ago in February when the North formally declared itself to be a nuclear weapons state, and the reaction in Japan was underwhelming, to say the least. The headline in the Japan Times read: “Announcement Might Complicate Abduction Issue,” which pretty much shows where Tokyo’s priorities lie – an accounting for its nationals abducted by the North.

Of course, the reaction might have been entirely different if the North Koreans had proved their assertion beyond a doubt by actually exploding an atomic bomb. There is a school of thought that believes – or wishes to believe - that the North does not have a bomb because it has not mastered all of the elements of producing a workable weapon. Plutonium bombs are tricky.

Supposedly the US is the one participant most committed to ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But the ink was no sooner dry on the “breakthrough” Sept 19 agreement than Washington raised the extraneous issue of Pyongyang counterfeiting US currency.

This may be a legitimate beef on the part of Washington, but how can a few million fake $100 notes weigh against the prospect of a mushroom cloud somewhere in America?

One has to wonder what kind of game Washington is playing. If this is some kind of gambit in the complicated game to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table it is too Machiavellian – to use Tom Plate’s words – for me to understand.

In this long, weary story, the US has dragged out delivery of the aid and recognition it promised when North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons program in 1994. For its part, Pyongyang violated the spirit by experimenting with uranium enrichment. You don’t have to look to China alone to find plenty of bad faith.


Blogger Patrick Tan said...

A nuclear DPRK is the perfect excuse for the increasingly hawkish Japanese to go nuclear. That's the last thing the PRC wants to see.

May 9, 2006 at 2:34 PM  

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