China's turn

January 05, 2003

A HALF-CENTURY ago, when American-led U.N. troops drove North Korean forces across the Yalu River into China, the Chinese army entered the civil war on the Korean peninsula, ultimately succeeding at pushing the frontlines back to the 38th Parallel - the division between the Koreas that remains today.

Then, following the Asian model of Stalinism pioneered by China, the North proceeded to register the first Korean economic miracle, roughly two decades of growth outstripping that of postwar South Korea.

These days, having failed to mirror the economic reforms that the Chinese launched two decades ago, North Korea has long been surpassed by the South.

The North's economy is in shambles, its people are starving and, though it still espouses an ideology of self-reliance, it subsists on international aid - much of it from China.

In other words, North Korea likely wouldn't exist as a political entity without China. And it wouldn't be surviving now without China.

It's thus long overdue for China to bring considerable pressure on the North to resolve the latest crisis on the Korean peninsula, one brought on by the North's efforts over the last few months to blackmail the United States with the threat of building a small nuclear arsenal.

China and the North no longer have what the Chinese used to term "a lips and teeth" relationship. But China does supply an estimated 70 percent of the North's crude oil and much of its food. And China has many reasons to play a major role in defusing the latest alarm on the peninsula and leading the North out of the ranks of the world's pariah states:

A nuclear North encourages an arms race in East Asia, with pressures mounting on Japan and even Taiwan to join the club - a prospect that cannot be welcomed by China.

A North in sudden economic collapse threatens a tide of starving migrants pouring into not only South Korea but also northeastern China, an instability and responsibility also not welcomed by Beijing.

A North promulgating crises undermines the calm that Chinese leaders need in East Asia so they can focus on sustaining rapid economic growth. It also fosters turmoil in South Korea, now China's fifth-largest foreign investor and its third-largest trading partner.

It's not known if China privately is applying its substantial leverage on the North, but it does not appear that way. A South Korean envoy went to Beijing last week to ask for help, but China's public stance has been conflicted. Even as it assumes that all of East Asia is its political domain and asserts that it is a major world power, China may be paralyzed by its own top leadership transition and stuck on the competitive benefit derived from the North so directly defying what the Chinese consider U.S. hegemony.

South Korean, Japanese and U.S. envoys are meeting in Washington this week to align their strategies in coping with the North's new nuclear threats. That's absolutely necessary. But there likely can be no long-term reduction in Korean threats and tensions without China beginning to use its growing strength and aspirations as a world power to take responsibility for its creation.

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