Free riders

February 26, 2003

WITH THE United States on the brink of attacking Iraq even as it endures escalating nuclear provocations from North Korea, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has been schlepping around Asia like a beggar - and not finding much succor at that.

In Beijing, Mr. Powell sought China's support in the United Nations for action against Iraq - as well as badly needed help in negotiating a resolution to the mounting Korean crisis.

Mr. Powell praised China's aid in fighting terrorism; in its far west, Beijing now has cover for its longtime repression of the Xinjiang region's forgotten Muslims. U.S. diplomats also intimated China likely will come around on Iraq; in return, China reportedly is trying to wrangle concessions on Taiwan.

Beijing well may end up abstaining in any subsequent U.N. vote on Iraq - as in the first gulf war - but Mr. Powell left with no promises.

China also may be pressuring North Korea behind the scenes, but publicly it continues to stress that the North's nuclear threat is a problem for the United States alone to solve in direct talks - directly contrary to the U.S. call for regional powers to align with it in multilateral talks with the North.

In South Korea yesterday, Mr. Powell also found little relief. At President Roh Moo Hyun's inauguration, the U.S. envoy heard him call for a "more reciprocal and equitable relationship" with the United States. Translation: Like China, we're not willing to follow you in forcing the North to give up its nuclear ambitions.

At the same time, the North continued its brinkmanship - by firing a short-range missile into the sea Monday. Mr. Powell wisely downplayed the show, but such provocations will only intensify if China and South Korea try to continue as free riders in this crisis - leaving it up to the United States alone to disarm the North.

Both China and the South resist pressuring the North because they more immediately fear chaos from a collapse of the rogue state than its nuclear potential. The South wants the North to open slowly, so it can be a source of profit, not national bankruptcy. Similarly, China doesn't want to face a united Korea and likes the North as a buffer between it and the freewheeling South.

Both so cling to the status quo that they are risking badly deteriorated relations with the United States - to say nothing of the dangers of a nuclearized Korean peninsula. So much has been made of the North's dangerous brinkmanship that it's become clichM-i. But the Chinese and South Korean aversion to joining with the United States in exerting pressure on the North has now also become its own kind of dangerous brinkmanship.

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