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N. Korean Threat Different for China

Beijing is concerned more with regional stability than nuclear peril from its neighbor.

October 13, 2006|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — China's reaction to North Korea's nuclear test announcement early this week was unusually swift and forceful. Within hours, the normally slow-to-react Chinese government characterized Pyongyang's action as hanran, meaning brazen, a term generally reserved for its worst enemies.

By midweek, however, China was sounding more like its old self: calling for dialogue, eschewing confrontation and warning against comprehensive economic sanctions, even as it redoubled efforts to bring its longtime ally back to the negotiating table.

As North Korea's top supplier of energy and food, Beijing is viewed as the key to a tough international response at the United Nations to North Korea's declared nuclear test Monday in defiance of Security Council warnings. And Washington argues that China must be a "responsible stakeholder" if it wants a leading role in international politics.

But with its go-slow stance, Beijing has been exposed to criticism that it is squandering a golden opportunity to display global leadership.

The problem, analysts say, is that China draws much different conclusions than Washington, even in the middle of a nuclear crisis, because it has a very different idea of what's important and what it needs to prosper.

Whereas the U.S. and Europe view a nuclear North Korea as a fundamental threat to the global order, China sees it less as a problem in its own right than as a catalyst for other headaches, including the possible destabilization of the Korean peninsula and militarization of Japan.

"America wants to see North Korea go away, representing the final victory of the Cold War," said Alexandre Mansourov, a security expert with the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. "China's interests, however, lie in keeping North Korea in place. China's not doing this because it loves [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il, but because it wants the buffer to remain."

Furthermore, Beijing appears to be less worried about a nuclear-armed North Korea.

"There's a big perception gap," said Jin Linbo, Asia-Pacific director at Beijing's China Institute of International Studies. "China has a different assessment of the danger."

Beijing already lives in a tough neighborhood where nuclear neighbors are abundant. It nearly went to war with a nuclear Soviet Union in the 1960s and more recently watched Pakistan and rival India join the club. China is not all that impressed by Pyongyang's nuclear technology, analysts add, nor does it see itself as a potential target.

China's position bears similarities to that of the U.S. from the Civil War to World War I, says Jin Canrong, vice dean of foreign relations at People's University in Beijing. It is industrializing rapidly, weathering a huge population shift from rural to urban areas and is grappling with enormous social problems related to rising expectations and a widening wealth gap.

In the same way America was primarily isolationist as it focused on internal development, China seeks enough time and international stability to lift its people out of poverty, ease societal stresses and keep enough money flowing to maintain the Communist Party's monopoly.

A bigger danger than North Korean nuclear weapons from China's perspective is Washington destabilizing the region. Beijing apparently believes it needs North Korea as a buffer against the 30,000 or so U.S. troops stationed in South Korea to guard against an attack by Kim.

China, along with Russia, fears that sanctions could lead to a change of government in Pyongyang and growing U.S. influence close to home. Sanctions presaged the U.S.-led NATO removal of President Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia and the 2003 invasion of Iraq that unseated President Saddam Hussein.

Moreover, if Kim fell, the risk of refugees flooding across the border into China is a frightening economic and social prospect.

Also weighing on China's mind is a fear that precipitate action could disrupt its courtship of South Korea, analysts say. If the Pyongyang government collapses in the near future in the wake of sanctions or direct military action, the United States would retain significant influence over a Seoul-dominated Korean peninsula. Keeping Kim in place, on the other hand, could eventually see both Koreas in China's camp.

"South Korea is the big prize in all of this," said Ralph Cossa, executive director of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum, affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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