China’s Influence on North Korea is Limited

15 05 2009

Bruce Klingnerby Sunny Lee, Korea Times (14 May 2009)

BEIJING ― The George W. Bush administration was criticized for several years for “sub-contracting”‘ the North Korean nuclear issue out to China. The U.S. turned in large measure to Beijing for the initiative in multinational negotiations, or six-party talks, hoping it would be able to goad North Korea into giving up its nuclear ambitions. But after several years, some observers are beginning to point out that Beijing “didn’t do enough” with its authority as the host of the talks, and failed to exercise its influence as virtually the only lifeline to the North. It has sparked debate on “China’s identity crisis” ― whether it’s unable or unwilling to influence North Korea.

In an exclusive interview with The Korea Times, Bruce Klingner, a former CIA agent on North Korean affairs and now a senior fellow with the Heritage Foundation, said contrary to the prevalent perception, China’s influence over North Korea has proved to be limited by its own choice and called for Beijing to examine its global identity, commensurate with the expectations of the international community. He said Beijing has less influence over Pyongyang than many people think it does, and even though it declared that a nuclear North Korea was against its core national interest, it was unwilling or unable to pressure its neighbor into stopping its nuclear programs.

“China also, despite its best efforts, was unable to prevent North Korea’s missile launch in 2006 and a nuclear test in the same year as well as the most recent missile launch this year,” he added. “After the nuclear test in 2006, China sent a senior-level envoy to North Korea but Kim Jong-il refused to see him. And before the missile test this year, China sent another senior envoy to North Korea, but North Korea went ahead with its missile test.” In his view, China couldn’t even get North Korea to implement Chinese-style economic reforms despite repeated inducement and urgings.

“One can debate whether China is unwilling or unable to pressure North Korea. But in either case, what is clear is that it has not played the beneficial role that the U.S. policy makers have repeatedly and publicly praised Beijing for. “What we need to do now is to more truthfully characterize Beijing’s role. After the U.N. Security Council action in which China vetoed to adopt a resolution, we should now stop describing China as playing a beneficial role as the chairman of the six-party talks. It provided tea and cookies, but beyond that, it didn’t appear to have done too much.”

– Then, how would he characterize China’s role?

“I think we should more accurately and truthfully and publicly characterize China’s actions at the U.N. Security Council as ‘obstructionism,’ contrary to the consensus of the international community, as evidenced in U.N. Resolution 1718, which called for North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner. So, China, together with Russia, was obstructing efforts to enforce the U.N. resolutions.

“If Beijing wants to do something, it could certainly do something right now, as some countries are floundering around, trying to find out what to do. Right now, China could step into the bridge, first by not obstructing the efforts to enforce the international law and the U.N. resolutions. But the lack of initiative by Beijing clearly undermines the assertion that China is willing,” he said. “If China has so much influence over North Korea, why is it unable to prevent a minor country across its borders from violating China’s core strategic national interest,” he questioned.

“Most people point to China as having considerable ‘potential’ influence because it could turn off all the spigots of oil deliveries and the all the deliveries of the food to North Korea. That really is an unreasonable option. It’s an extreme option China would never take. We need to find some kind of policy option short of that,” he said…

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