Gady Epstein: China Won’t Help U.S. On North Korea, And Here’s Why

With tensions rising on the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. and other countries are hoping China will use its weight to influence North Korea in a positive, non-confrontational direction. But in Forbes, Gady Epstein explains why China is even less likely to play that role now than it was eight years ago:

During endless on-and-off-again six-party talks in which China played a seemingly crucial moderating role, Pyongyang all but agreed to ends its nuclear program but dramatically reversed course after receiving some concessions. Now, in the last week, the world hears that North Korea has shown off an impressively modern uranium-enrichment facility that must have been in development for years.

Yet during the years that Pyongyang built up its nuclear program, Beijing never showed the urgency that seemed palpable in 2003. Today the fundamental logic of China’s alliance with North Korea is not seriously challenged, at least not openly: A stable regime is better than a collapsed one on China’s border, and North Korea is an effective buffer state between China and South Korea — and South Korea’s patron protector, the United States. That may be perversely even more true now that North Korea is a nuclear weapons state, though China has consistently maintained that it wants a denuclearized Korean peninsula.

That means that for now, the U.S. cannot expect help from China after yesterday’s attack and the uranium-enrichment revelations. On that, experts from Washington to Seoul to Beijing seem to agree, including the scholar Shi whom I interviewed in 2003. Today, he emailed me in response to my questions: “If the present situation would not deteriorate even much further, China’s general posture and position would be quite similar with China’s response to the Cheonan sunken ship case in the past months, esp. if one takes into account the dramatic and ‘huge’ improvement of China-DPRK relations in the past months or year.”

For American and South Korean experts who have been confounded by North Korea for years, the Chinese position is a source of obvious frustration.

And from an editorial in the official Global Times:

The US and its allies seem to have a paradoxical attitude toward the role they expect China to play on the Korean Peninsula.

On one hand, they wish China to side with them pressing the North; meanwhile, they want China to exert special influence over Pyongyang. The situation reflects the dilemma between their self-centered thinking and lack of measures to deal with North Korea.

November 24, 2010 10:07 PM
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