China Wields Carrots and Celery Sticks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted October 10, 2006

In the Asian political sphere where stability is the rule, China’s choices are limited when dealing with its newly nuclear neighbor, North Korea.

China provides 70% of international food and fuel aid to the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). Quite simply, North Korea would disintegrate physically and possibly politically if Beijing cut the lifeline.

I say political disintegration is only possible and not necessarily probable because I believe the DPRK regime led by Kim Jong-il is part of a historical trend that sees dictators flourish no matter how many of their denizens die.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the DPRK lost its main ideological and financial sponsor. With subsidized fuel and food no longer available, somewhere between 600,000 and 3.5 million North Koreans perished.

I say between 600,000 and 3.5 million because estimates vary wildly and, as one might imagine, the government in Pyongyang has not issued official figures on how many countrymen died due to the abject failure of the centrally-planned economy.

The DPRK does not even release a yearly GDP figure. We must rely on the South Korean Ministry of Unification for its guesses, which put growth north of the border at a whopping 1.8% in 2003, the last year reported.

Some industrial cooperation has sprouted under the Republic of Korea’s (South Korea) quixotic Sunshine Policy, where economic cooperation is the uneasy tether that may rope the North closer to reality and some measure of prosperity.

Two of the primary champions of the Sunshine Policy have been President Roh Moo-hyun, and a bespectacled career diplomat named Ban Ki-moon.

Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon has within the past week become the Secretary-General-elect of the United Nations.

 

Stormy Monday

Mr. Ban’s parade was set upon with all the rain in Kim Jong-il’s cloud this Monday morning, when the DPRK government announced that it had successfully detonated a nuclear weapon.

Ban’s apparent success at keeping North Korea placid is now seen to be a plain failure. And it is certainly not a promising harbinger for the head of the world’s most diplomatic body to have to cop to his own country’s primary diplomatic tension as ongoing and even escalating.

But the diplomatic insults don’t end there. With one flip of the wrist, Kim Jong-il managed to seize a rare opportunity to slap both China and Japan across the face simultaneously.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office on October 26, made the symbolically and politically important move of making China the destination for his first state visit.

Outgoing Japanese PM Junichiro Koizumi had a rocky relationship with the Middle Kingdom and its leaders. He persisted in visiting the Yasukuni Shinto shrine, which honors Japanese war dead including "Class-A" war criminals. This incurred the ire of Chinese officialdom as well as the South Korean government. Both Korea and China were colonized by Japan during the World War II era, and historical reconciliation has been key to relations between China and Japan since normalization of ties in 1972.

Mr. Abe promptly met with all of the major Chinese Communist Party officials, reiterating his desire for historical healing while promising support for the One-China policy (which rejects Taiwanese independence).

China is Japan’s biggest trade partner, and Japan is China’s third biggest. The economic ties were cake but political warmth is the icing. The official Xinhua Chinese news agency has touted this détente as a "turning point" for Sino-Japanese relations.

And following this turning point, China’s Hu Jintao and Japan’s Abe added an exclamation point to their demands that North Korea stop its threats of nuclear demonstrations.

On Sunday the two leaders jointly expressed their "deep concern" and promised to bring their tandem power to bear in persuading Pyongyang (the DPRK capital) to stand down.

Then Came the Boom

According to a Russian diplomatic source in Pyongyang, DPRK officials notified the Russian ambassador to North Korea two full hours before the test was carried out.

Monday, a US congressman thanked the Chinese for letting the US know immediately after the Chinese found out – 20 minutes before the test.

So did Kim’s regime notify the Russians before the Chinese? Does he really want to punch his gift horse in the mouth?!

If that is his approach, China has no good options. Though UN Ambassador Wang Guangya has called publicly for "punitive action" against North Korea, we are also hearing plenty of qualifying adjectives like "prudent," and "pragmatic."

This is because North Korea could create a different explosive impact – at an opening of the North Korean gates, neighboring China and South Korea would both be inundated with refugees. Or Kim could pull a Mariel, letting loose the country’s "undesirables" as Fidel Castro did in 1980.

The South Korean press has devoted extensive coverage to what is called the beginning of a "nuclear domino effect" throughout the region, including Taiwan and Japan (whose laws are likely to be changed to erase a WWII-era ban on pre-emptive strikes).

South Korea’s intelligence head is on the record stating that Kim’s scientists and generals likely have enough fissile material for seven nuclear bombs, and that a larger bomb test is possible if not likely.

Though Monday’s test took place underground, above ground is where the reckoning is done. China convened the six-party talks that presented a multilateral front to cool Kim down. China is also the driving force behind the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is shaping up to be a sort of Central-East Asian NATO.

If China is not able to rattle a sword at the neighbor whose mortgage it is paying and whose kids it is feeding, perhaps it cannot be trusted to head up the neighborhood watch. North Korea has asked for congratulations for becoming part of the nuclear club and wants to resume direct negotiations with Washington.

Bush is not likely to do any more than China would, and all either country can really do is cut off supplies. Using conventional bombs to destroy fully-formed nukes is not an appetizing choice.

If China has been fine with the carrots-and-sticks approach to lure Korea into compliance, it needs to be ready to use a stick at some point. Otherwise, this episode contributes to a brooding cloud — a new century of proliferation and nuclear blackmail.

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