SINGAPORE — If North Korea wants to survive, it should look to China to learn how a failed communist state can reform without collapsing, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz told Asian defense ministers in a speech here Saturday.
The remarks from the Bush administration's leading advocate for overthrowing Saddam Hussein seemed designed to send a message to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that the United States is not bent on ousting him if it can wean him from his nuclear ambitions.
"Twenty-five years ago, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China pointed the way for how a failed communist system can undertake a process of reform without collapsing," Wolfowitz said. "That is the course North Korea needs to pursue if it is to avoid the kind of collapse that is viewed with apprehension throughout the region.
"If North Korea abandons the provocative course on which it is embarked and ends the wasteful diversion of scarce resources to military capabilities it does not need and cannot afford, it will find the door open" to help from other Asia-Pacific nations, Wolfowitz said.
A senior U.S. defense official elaborated on Wolfowitz's remarks, explaining, "If we want to have a peaceful outcome in North Korea, we need to persuade them that there's a way to change that is not suicidal. The North Koreans could do much, much worse than looking to China as an example."
In hailing communist China as a government for North Korea to emulate, Wolfowitz's speech also highlighted Washington's vastly improved relationship with Beijing.
In 1999, candidate George W. Bush criticized President Clinton's engagement policy toward China, saying Beijing was not a strategic partner but a "strategic rival." And he infuriated China by suggesting that the U.S. might defend Taiwan if the island declared independence.
In April 2001, the chilly U.S.-Chinese ties went into a deep freeze after a Navy EP-3 spy plane, crippled by a collision with a Chinese jet, was forced to land on Hainan island and its 24 U.S. crew members were detained for 11 days.
Warming Up to China
But the Bush administration has been warming up to China in light of its cooperation in the U.S.-led war on terrorism and Beijing's recent role in pressuring its longtime ally North Korea to give up the nuclear program that threatens to trigger a security crisis in East Asia.
"Compared to other evils in the world, China doesn't seem so evil as it did two years ago," one member of the Wolfowitz entourage said.
China is focused on its modernization efforts, internal problems and sustaining its economic growth, the senior defense official said. "At least for some considerable time to come, it gives China a largely peaceful orientation toward the neighborhood," the official said.
"It doesn't mean we think everything they are doing is fine," he said. "We're still concerned about the level of Chinese military buildup in the Taiwan Strait area." Still, in word and deed "the Chinese have been fairly good participants in this part of the world recently," the official said.
Said Wolfowitz: "It is important that we both engage China and at the same time make sure China understands that [its neighbors are] going to insist on peaceful behavior."
Despite the Bush administration's more benign view of China, the relationship is not without friction. China joined France and Germany in blocking a second United Nations resolution authorizing the U.S. to use force against Iraq. And on May 9, the U.S. imposed sanctions on one of China's largest companies for contributing to Iran's ballistic missile program. The company, North China Industries, or Norinco, had annual exports to the U.S. estimated to be worth more than $100 million, according to the Reuters news agency.
But when President Bush meets the new Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, this week, a key topic will be how the U.S. and China can formulate a joint strategy to keep North Korea from becoming a nuclear-armed state.
Wolfowitz is on a five-day visit to Asia to coordinate U.S. military strategy with Asian allies and will travel from Singapore to Seoul and Tokyo. He has been calling for a "firm, common, multilateral position" among the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China and Russia to put economic pressure on North Korea for a verifiable dismantlement of its nuclear weapons programs.
Because most of North Korea's aid and trade come from the other nations, the U.S. cannot go it alone, he said.
The difference between North Korea and Iraq, Wolfowitz said, is that the U.S. could not use economic pressure to strangle Hussein's regime "because the country floats on a sea of oil."
North Korea, by comparison, is at the edge of economic collapse, and that offers "a major point of leverage," he said.