China wary on N. Korea

Beijing hesitant to use leverage with Pyongyang to force nuclear talks

March 20, 2005|By Mark Magnier | Mark Magnier,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DANDONG, China - Twice a day, long lines of trucks filled with fruit, small appliances, potatoes and rice wend their way for several blocks along Binjiang Zhonglu Street before negotiating a sharp turn onto the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge leading into North Korea.

These deliveries, like the single-lane bridge over the Yalu River, are a lifeline for the impoverished communist state - and the focus of international attention in recent weeks as the United States and other countries pressure China to use its trade leverage to force North Korea back to the nuclear negotiating table.

From China's perspective, however, it's not quite that easy. Beijing has as much interest in solving the crisis as Washington does, analysts say, but it has limited leverage over North Korea, which declared last month that it had a nuclear weapon.

"China can't control these guys," said Yan Xuetong, international relations expert at Beijing's Qinghua University. "If they could, North Korea would never have announced its nuclear capability in the first place."

There is also debate in China about the wisdom and efficacy of pressing North Korea in such a way.

Although the nation might be impoverished and in need of just about everything, it remains extremely proud, convinced that its rigorous, disciplined society makes it at least the equal of China.

"They don't regard China as a big brother," said Hu Qinghua, 25, who was born and raised in North Korea before settling in Dandong a few years ago under a program that allows ethnic Chinese to repatriate. "They even look down on us a bit, calling us the `Chinese mob.'"

A blockade of the bridge would be viewed by the North Koreans as blackmail, more likely to make them clam up in anger than open doors to dialogue, analysts said. And it could blunt Beijing's influence with Pyongyang when it's needed most - if and when a deal is forged to stem North Korea's weapons program.

"In North Asian cultures, if you use your leverage too openly, you just make people angry," said Mei Renyi, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. "You get much more over the long run if you let them save face and make them feel it's their decision."

Like most things about North Korea, detailed trade statistics are not available, nor is the number of trucks and trains that cross annually into China. But locals say thousands of people are employed in manufacturing, transporting and selling goods on both sides of the border. Dandong, a once-sleepy garrison town, has been revitalized by its proximity to the border and by the estimated 500 local companies engaged in trade.

The pressure China faces to sever this link has come from Washington and, increasingly, Tokyo, which recently tightened its waterborne trade with North Korea by imposing new insurance and safety requirements on arriving vessels.

On Friday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on China to do more to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table. Rice is on a four-day swing through Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing, with the nuclear crisis a major focus of discussion.

The shared Chinese-North Korean border also hampers China's ability to adopt a more confrontational stance with North Korea, some say. With the North's economy on life support, any new blow risks sending thousands of desperate people into China. Beijing reportedly deployed more soldiers to the border last year amid fears that the regime was near collapse.

China is also constrained by an internal debate over how hard a line to take against North Korea, accentuated by the countries' shared history, ideology and memories of better times.

Both became Communist states in the late 1940s, led by China's Mao Tse-tung and North Korea's Kim Il Sung, revolutionaries who enjoyed enormous respect and a founding-father appeal among their people.

"There's still a lack of consensus in China over whether to press North Korea," said Jin Canrong, deputy dean of international relations at People's University in Beijing. "These old ties always restrain policy."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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