From Beijing, stern words for an uneasy ally

China seen toughening stance against N. Korea nuclear development

March 28, 2003|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - For three straight days in recent weeks, something remarkable happened to the oil pipeline running through northeast China to North Korea - the oil stopped flowing, according to diplomatic sources, temporarily cutting off a vital lifeline for North Korea.

The pipeline shutdown, officially ascribed to a technical problem, followed an unusually blunt message delivered by China to its longtime ally in a high-level meeting in Beijing last month, the sources said. Stop your provocations about the possible development of nuclear weapons, China warned its neighbor, or face Chinese support for economic sanctions against the regime.

Such tough tactics show an unexpected resolve in Beijing's policy toward Pyongyang, and hint at the nervousness of Chinese leaders about North Korea's nuclear ambitions and North Korea's tensions with the United States.

With the Bush administration asking China to take a more active role, Beijing's application of pressure could convince North Korea to drop its demands for talks exclusively with the United States - a demand that Washington rejects.

Forceful diplomacy is not the norm in China's dealings with North Korea, a trying friend at the best of times.

China fought side by side with the North against the United States in the Korean War, and currently supplies substantial food aid and most of the oil North Korea needs to sustain itself. But the two nations have a testy relationship that has included numerous flare-ups, including China's decision to pursue economic reforms a quarter-century ago, and Beijing's establishment of formal diplomatic ties with Seoul.

Now, China is concerned that a nuclear-armed North Korea would destabilize the region, analysts said.

"When you talk with Chinese officials, ask them, `Are you OK with nuclear weapons in Taiwan? In Japan?'" said Park Syung Je, a North Korea expert at the Institute for Peace Affairs in Seoul. "I don't think so."

Chinese officials have taken great care not to publicly criticize Pyongyang, other than to repeat their opposition to nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula and urge all sides not to take any action that might heighten tensions. And they have consistently opposed sanctions, a possible step by the United Nations Security Council that North Korea says would amount to a declaration of war.

China's public stance has remained unchanged even as North Korea kicked out atomic inspectors, withdrew from the international Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, shadowed a U.S. surveillance plane, test-fired two short-range missiles, reopened a nuclear reactor and indicated it might begin reprocessing spent reactor fuel to produce plutonium. Officials have also appeared unfazed by insistent American calls for China to play a more active role.

"Sanctions will not do, and we are opposed to the wanton use of sanctions or the threat of sanctions," Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said yesterday, though he left an opening for new diplomatic options. "We hope that the United States and North Korea can resolve this peacefully through dialogue. But we welcome all measures that are conducive to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula."

Discerning what Chinese officials tell the North Koreans in private is difficult at best. North Korea is perhaps the most isolated and closed regime in the world, and Chinese officials have repeatedly declined to make any comments about the specific content of their talks with their North Korean counterparts.

But two sources - both veterans in diplomacy with North Korea - said that last month, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi met in Beijing with North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun and made a strikingly candid plea for Pyongyang to curtail its provocative behavior. If Pyongyang did not, Wang told Paek, China might drop its longstanding opposition to sanctions.

The exact wording of that threat is unknown, and it's also not clear how seriously Paek took the threat. But the pipeline shutdown that followed would have caught North Korea's attention.

Chinese support for sanctions would be a sharp departure from Beijing's traditional view that the North Korean regime must be propped up. The collapse of North Korea would send a flood of refugees across the border into northeastern China and unleash chaos on the peninsula, where the North has functioned as a security buffer for China for decades.

But this winter, some leading Chinese scholars began openly questioning the traditional policy, arguing that China needed to readjust its approach to regional security. China may need to get tough with North Korea, some scholars said, or risk finding itself next door to an unpredictable, nuclear-armed state.

"We can't afford to shield North Korea any longer," Zhu Feng, an international security expert at Beijing University, said in an interview last month. "There is increasing recognition here if North Korea is finally armed with nuclear weapons, it will be a big threat to China."

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