China's Role in the Korea Puzzle

December 28, 1993

Here, precisely, is what Chinese Premier Li Peng told U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali about the crisis triggered by American suspicions that North Korea is developing or already possesses nuclear weapons capability:

"We hold that denuclearization of the peninsula will be realized at an early date, for this will not only be conducive to peace and security in the peninsula, but also in the interests of both (North and South Korea) and beneficial to peace and stability in the region and in the world as a whole."

This statement, in our view, is of greater importance than Mr. Li's more publicized comment that China opposes having Security Council economic sanctions imposed on North Korea if it continues to block international inspections of all its nuclear facilities. (He did not rule out an abstention).

By predicting that "denuclearization. . . will be realized," the Chinese premier suggested that the North Korean arms program already has reached the stage where serious corrective action is necessary "at an early date." And by saying that denuclearization would add to stability in the region, he seemed to acknowledge that China as well as the United States is concerned about a nuclear-armed North Korea -- not least because Japan could go nuclear in response.

Now consider the seemingly unrelated remarks of Bowman Cutter, a senior White House official, that China will move to the center of U.S. trade and economic policy in 1994 as its 13.3 percent growth rate this year puts it on track to surpass the U.S. as the world's largest economy by 2005. By next June, President Clinton has to decide if China's human rights record would justify renewal of normal trading relations with Beijing. To pretend China's actions in the nuclear sphere would not have a major impact on this decision would be fantasy. For Beijing, access to the American market is crucial to its economic future.

These factors are evidence that the American-Chinese relationship, in reference to the North Korean question, is increasingly symbiotic despite differences in approach. Both superpowers oppose Pyongyang's nuclear program. If Beijing favors negotiations rather than sanctions, it is out of loyalty to an old if awkward ally and a desire not to isolate it into irresponsible action. If the U.S. brandishes the prospect of an oil and spare parts embargo against North Korea, it is out of hostility toward an old and awkward enemy and a desire to stop a serious breach in the world drive against nuclear proliferation.

Mr. Boutros Ghali's trip to North Korea put a global imprint on the issue even if strongman Kim Il-Sung said his regime would negotiate only with the U.S., as the chief (and nuclear armed) ally of South Korea. Washington's secret weapon in these negotiations may be the leverage it exerts on a China that can exert leverage on North Korea. The U.S. cannot permit North Korea to go nuclear. But neither can China, whatever its public posture.

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