China's Chance in Korea's Crisis

June 04, 1994

After President Clinton decided last week to extend normal trading arrangements with China, the Beijing regime responded that "the current situation offers a historic opportunity for the enhancement" of bilateral relations. With North Korea pushing ahead with its nuclear weapons program, that "historic opportunity" is already at hand. China holds the key to effective international sanctions against Pyongyang. If it turns that key, it would not be due to U.S. pressure; it would reflect China's assessment of its own national interests.

Having de-linked trade and human rights issues, Washington should not try to link China's nuclear non-proliferation policies with any other significant feature in the relationship. If we are to have mature ties with Beijing, they must be based on respect, not threat. This will be the best way to deal with the Hong Kong and Taiwan questions as well as the immediate crisis posed by North Korea.

The pressure is on Beijing as the Security Council nears consideration of international sanctions against Pyongyang. Will China vote yes, abstain (most likely) or cast a veto? As the major supplier of food, oil and coal to North Korea, it is loath to weaken a fellow Communist regime right on its border. Yet it also has reason to fear the instability that would be created by a nuclear North Korea threatening war against South Korea and stimulating Japan to develop its own nuclear capability.

Obviously these considerations must loom large in Chinese calculations. Beijing should seize the moment to demonstrate that it is ready to play a vigorous role in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. North Korea has rebuffed International Atomic Energy Agency inspection of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. As a result, the IAEA has lost any chance of determining if fuel has been diverted for bomb-making purposes. This being the case, a tough new question arises: How should North Korea be punished for its past violations without jeopardizing any chance for bringing future North Korean nuclear operations under control?

Unlike Somalia or Bosnia or Haiti, North Korea would challenge vital U.S. security interests if it succeeds in setting a precedent that nations can violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty with impunity. Therefore, global economic sanctions are needed.

There are, however, ways to steer this situation to a solution short of a second Korean war. The sanctions could be gradual and tailored to China's wishes. Russia's proposal for an international conference could give North Korea the chance for a climb-down without loss of face. Japan could move to curb more than $1 billion a year in remittances from expatriate North Koreans to their homeland. And the United States could explicitly raise the prospect of full diplomatic relations with North Korea if it stops defying international rules of conduct and becomes a law-abiding nation.

China, however, is the decisive factor. Clearly, the situation cries out for Sino-American cooperation at a level never achieved before.

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