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China Leaves the Sidelines to Lead N. Korea Talks

National security is seen as a factor in Beijing's new role. Officials caution that the summit may not yield a deal to end the nuclear crisis.

August 28, 2003|Sam Howe Verhovek and Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writers

BEIJING — Diplomats from six nations formally convened Wednesday to discuss how to deal with North Korea's nuclear weapons program, with China seeking to lead in the intricate diplomatic dance.

Participants in the three days of talks here doubt that there will be a major breakthrough, and some say the best news may be simply an agreement to talk again. If there is progress, it could be because of China's active role in bringing the parties together and its pronouncements in many official forums in recent days that the crisis can be resolved.

China's chief official at the talks, Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi, has been an energetic host, greeting diplomats at the door of the Diaoyutai State Guest House and shepherding them around for photographs and staged handshakes before they took their places at a hexagonal table.

More substantively, Wang encouraged a side meeting between American and North Korean officials, although it was brief and inconclusive, and he has said in interviews this week that China believes the major goals expressed by the participants can be met: that North Korea can win guarantees of its security while the United States and other countries can gain guarantees that North Korea will be "denuclearized."

China's prominent role in the diplomacy here by no means assures success, and Wang and other Chinese officials have taken pains to discourage expectations of an immediate deal from this round of talks, which also includes negotiators from South Korea, Japan and Russia.

Still, after many months in which Beijing seemed to take a sideline view of the matter and showed no signs of using its considerable leverage in food and oil supplies over the North Koreans, many experts both here and abroad say the Chinese leaders seem much more intent on pushing for a resolution.

"Getting the Chinese to take ownership of this process has been very important, maybe even critical to knowing if there's a diplomatic way out of this," said Richard Bush, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They have come to realize their own national security interests are at stake. It's not just a Korean problem, not just an American problem, it's a Chinese problem.

"Having said that," Bush added, "what they have been involved in so far is just creating a process, and just having a process doesn't guarantee you're going to get good results."

China's history with North Korea is tangled, and relations are changing fast. Chinese leaders once saw North Korea as an immensely pliant fellow Communist state, one that was indebted to Beijing not only for food and fuel but for the fact that China suffered at least a million casualties fighting for the North during the Korean War in the early 1950s.

But even the Chinese now seem to view North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Il, as an erratic rogue state that is no longer a puppet but instead a drain on China, especially with an economy so dysfunctional that hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are trying desperately to slip across the border into China. And in a final straw, some Chinese businesspeople and government officials who have visited the North report that there have been systematic actions by officials in some places to remove memorials in honor of the Chinese who died fighting for the country.

Given all this, the Chinese want North Korea to make a deal, one that ensures it gets rid of its nuclear weapons and that perhaps yields some aid to help recharge its ailing economy. That helps to explain why China has taken a much more forceful diplomatic role in the matter than it had in the past.

"This is a very tremendous change of China's diplomacy in an international context," said Zhu Feng, a specialist in security matters at Beijing University's School of International Studies. "I think previously China was neutral in these disputes. It sort of seemed like it was trying to stay out."

Now Chinese leaders are not exactly taking sides, Zhu said, "but they are very positively engaged in trying to mediate for the different sides, trying to be a bridge."

Still, he and other government-sponsored scholars here dampen expectations that Chinese negotiators might have showed up at the talks with a definite deal in mind. Rather, they say, China wants to keep everybody talking, at least for a while.

"In its role as coordinator, China wants there to be a good atmosphere for discussion. It doesn't want to see that broken," said Piao Jianyi, executive director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Issues Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "China is a bridge in these talks, but it's not going to propose a solution at every corner."

Another looming question is just how much pressure China is willing to put on the North Koreans to make a deal. If Beijing withholds food, fuel or other supplies, it could force Kim to come to terms -- or it could simply spark chaos and even collapse in the Stalinist state.

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