U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s East Asian visit in March may have sent a covert signal to Beijing that it was time to consider other options to deal with North Korea. Certainly the six-party talks are still the preferred formula in settling the nuclear conundrum with the DPRK. However, it looks increasingly pessimistic that the forum is capable of achieving the goal. If Washington decides that enough is enough, Beijing will be under pressure to follow the U.S.-led “Plan B” – whatever that may be.
Why are the six-party talks failing? The chief reason is Pyongyang’s determination to keep its weapons of mass destruction as a countermeasure against the U.S. strategy of regime change. Yet differences in the order of priorities among the parties also factor into the question of how to pressure North Korea.
Both the U.S. and China have agreed to use peaceful means to terminate Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Yet to the Chinese, denuclearizing the DPRK is a secondary goal vis-à-vis war avoidance. For the first time, in February, Beijing raised concerns over how the dispute might be resolved, as the method is seen as directly affecting China’s national security.  Beijing takes seriously Pyongyang’s threat that anything other than a negotiated settlement may escalate tension to the point of war, which would be disastrous for China. For Beijing, preventing a war must be pursued at all cost. This may contravene the top priority of the U.S. regarding the six-party talks: that the Korean Peninsula remains nuclear free. To Washington, the military option is a non-option for the time being, but eventually it may become applicable if a multilateral framework goes nowhere.
The sequence of priorities has profound impact on the long-term outcome of the six-party mechanism. For instance, emphasis on war avoidance is sensible and welcomed by other participants. However, it may indirectly help Pyongyang: a protracted negotiation allows North Korea to weaponize any atomic materials.  Moreover, emphasis on peaceful means propels Beijing to echo Pyongyang’s security concern as a way to find a feasible solution. As a result, Beijing regards U.S. security guarantees in a written form not only necessary but essential for the goal of the six-party forum to be reached. Last but not least, stressing a peaceful solution logically places China in favor of the DPRK’s proposal of a phased and parallel process leading to a bargained settlement, namely, U.S. security guarantees plus compensation in exchange of Pyongyang’s removal of its nuclear facilities through an interim phase of freezing.
Such a solution is clearly at odds with U.S. objectives in Korea. According to Washington, maximizing pressure is a precondition for bringing Pyongyang to a sensible assessment of its plight, both domestic and international. Inevitably this has to be based on a level of military threat. Therefore, pre-emptive strike cannot be totally ruled out. In the last two years, the U.S., bogged down in Iraq, has had to tolerate the stall-tactics of the DPRK. Not to mention that Washington, too, needs time to develop another strategy. The six-party forum is viewed as the best mechanism against this background. But now the situation may have changed. The U.S. may be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel in Iraq, and the ineffectiveness of the six-party talks may have convinced Washington to consider other options to pressure the DPRK.
North Korean security is of no concern for the U.S. government, which is focused on keeping WMDs out of the hands of tyrants. A written security guarantee to Pyongyang is politically risky and ideologically unacceptable to the Bush Administration, and the proposed compensation in exchange for stepped up dismantling is not what the U.S. wants. Learning the lesson of the failed Agreed Framework, it is logical for Washington to demand complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement without an interim phase of breezing. In fact, Washington seeks the application of the Libya model to the case of North Korea. According to aspiring U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, the U.S. did not compensate Libya for ending its WMD program, but rather allowed Libya to reenter the international community – which is compensation enough. The U.S. considers the very high price Pyongyang has place on North Korean cooperation as extortion. For an administration which criticized its predecessor for bribing Pyongyang in order to conclude the Agreed Framework, large sums of compensation would be out of the question.
While Beijing has been silent on the Libya model, in private Chinese analysts have deep doubts about its applicability to Pyongyang. North Korea does not care about returning as a rehabilitated member of the international community; its only concern is regime survival. Moreover, whereas Libya has oil-wealth to sustain it, the DPRK is desperately dependent on compensation and aid. The Libya model provides no benefits to Kim Jong-il. It is no surprise, therefore, that some Chinese analysts consider it impossible that Pyongyang would renounce its nuclear program without proper compensation.
Behind the differences in Chinese and U.S. goals for the six-party talks remains the fundamental issue of the future of the Peninsula. If regime change is the unshakeable policy of Washington toward the Pyongyang, Beijing will eventually have to come around. In fact, the view of North Korea as a liability has become more popular in the PRC, and China’s long-term strategy remains reunification with the South.  Its immediate plan is, however, to preserve the DPRK. Beijing insists that this approach is an attempt to find a peaceful resolution to the nuclear issue. But just as the U.S. has used China to pressure the DPRK, China may use North Korea against the Americans.  For instance, Pyongyang’s presence helps Beijing maintain workable relations with Washington, and through this China extracts U.S. support for its Taiwan policy. For the time being, preserving North Korea as a buffer zone is worth the enormous economic aid Beijing pays to Kim Jong-il.
Beijing is sincere about denuclearizing North Korea through the six-party talks, and about helping the U.S. within this framework. Although Washington believes that there is still room for Beijing to increase pressure, what the Chinese leadership has done so far is unprecedented. China believes that with a written security guarantee and the proper compensation, Pyongyang would budge, although reluctantly. Kim Jong-il does not need a permanent enemy in the U.S. or nuclear weapons if he receives enough money to fund his economic reforms so as to ensure the regime’s survival. Given that what Pyongyang needs most is security and cash, Chinese diplomats doubt whether the U.S. actually wants to resolve the nuclear standoff. All parties understand that, at the end of the day, internal pressures, not external threats, will bring down the repressive Kim regime.
And it is increasingly apparent that the U.S. will not concede to Pyongyang’s requests for security and aid. Neither would Pyongyang give in without getting what it wants. Under the circumstances, it doesn’t seem to matter much if the DPRK does or does not return to the negotiating table. The six-party forum may just prove to be futile. If this indeed occurs, China will face enormous pressure to adjust to the new U.S. approach – such as reducing its aid to North Korea and supporting an American proposal to refer the nuclear matter to the UN. The priority differences between the U.S. and China hitherto hidden in the common goal of the six-party talks may well surface if the talks collapse altogether. A new American initiative will test the relatively smooth state of Sino-U.S. relations. Frustration with Kim’s repeated backtracking promises to Beijing is said to be one of the reasons why Hu Jintao has postponed his state trip to Pyongyang. Kim may deliberately be driving a wedge between Beijing and Washington.
What can Beijing do in case the six-party forum collapses? Will it yield to Washington’s demand to cut economic aid to the DPRK? Such a course of action would be difficult for Beijing, as it would amount to eliminating its already limited influence on Pyongyang. Furthermore, cutting aid may back North Korea into a corner and accelerate its demise. For Chinese strategists of the “buffer zone” school, as long as the Taiwan threat exists, North Korea has a usefulness that no other state can substitute. These policy advisors already complain that Beijing has gotten too deep into a matter that is primarily the worry of the U.S. For them, nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia is a non-argument: Japan is already a nuclear power in their minds. In the end, the level of pressure Beijing puts on the DPRK depends on what kind of reward it can get from Washington, especially with regard to Taiwan.
Dr. You Ji is a Senior Lecturer in Politics & International Relations at the University of New South Wales.
1. Professor Jin Canrong of Beijing People’s University, Talk to the Focus of Today (A CCTV Current Affairs Program), 26 February 2005.
2. Masako Ikegami, “Anatomy of North Korean Nuclear Crisis”, PRIME, No. 19, 2004.
3. Wang Zhongwen, “Look at the problem of North Korea and Northeast Asia in a new angle”, Zhanlieyuguanli, No. 4, 2004, pp. 92-94. Due to the strong criticism at Kim Jong-il and the protest from Pyongyang, the Journal was banned.
4. Ehsan Ahrari, “Paying China for Pressuring Pyongyang”, Asia Times, 28 October 2004.