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China Plays Its North Korea Hand

Prepared by: Michael Moran
Updated: November 1, 2006

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Ever protective of North Korea’s sovereignty, China chose not to overplay the alarm, or any of the anger it may have felt about North Korea’s nuclear test earlier this month. Yet three weeks after Pyongyang’s nuclear detonation, with U.S.-led efforts to enforce new United Nations sanctions drawing lukewarm pledges in the region, China’s behind-the-scenes arm twisting apparently convinced North Korea to ratchet down the defiance a notch.

Tuesday’s announcement by China’s foreign ministry of a resumption of Six-Party Talks on North Korean nuclear weapons hardly counts as a breakthrough given the fruitless trajectory of the multiple rounds of talks which came before. Gary Samore, a North Korea nuclear expert who participated in negotations with North Korea during the Clinton administration, says he is "very skeptical the talks will make any progress." Yet U.S., Japanese, Australian, and other regional governments fearful of a North Korean regime immune to outside pressure may take heart that China finally made use of its unique leverage over Kim Jong-Il’s regime. CFR.org’s Carin Zissis looks at China’s economic ties with the North in this Backgrounder.

Economic pressure on North Korea, which conducted its nuclear test October 9, likely played a role in getting Kim to return to the table. Monthly statistics released by China’s Ministry of Commerce show a sharp, unprecedented drop in oil deliveries to Pyongyang in September (NYT), as concerns about a possible test heightened. Publicly, China says its trade with the North remains normal (AP) and reports suggest many other goods continue to flow (Globe&Mail). Adam Segal, CFR Senior Fellow for China Studies, notes in an interview with CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman that Pyongyang previously had set conditions on its return to talks, claiming a U.S. crackdown on suspected North Korean black market currency dealings had broken previous agreements. Whether concessions from Washington also were involved remains unclear.

From China's standpoint, the return of the North to negotiations will be viewed as a victory. The White House, too, welcomed the news (Reuters), and Christopher Hill, Washington’s chief North Korea negotiator, says the United States hopes a new round of talks will be held before the end of 2006 (Reuters). But others are less sanguine. Japan had tried hard to ensure the North would not be allowed back into talks as an openly nuclear nation (Japan Times), having agreed to renounce nuclear weapons in 2005. Japan remains the nation most acutely disturbed by the nuclear test, and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s policy chief, Shoichi Nakagawa, made the point during a visit to Washington this week by calling for a national debate on the creation of a Japanese nuclear deterrent (Asahi Shimbun). North Korea’s test sparked concerns about a kind of nuclear domino effect in Northeast Asia.  

Where would a new round take the nuclear talks? A former U.S.-North Korea negotiator, Kenneth Quinones, suggested Bush might bow to domestic political pressure and agree to direct talks with Pyongyang (Bloomberg). Washington has said such talks are possible within the Six-Party framework, but not outside of it. Meanwhile, Washington will continue to press for more vigorous uptake on UN sanctions, and for South Korea to fully join the Proliferation Security Initiative, a program aimed at preventing the export of North Korea's nuclear and ballistic technology.

But deep divisions remain between the U.S. and Japan, on one hand, and South Korea, whose government continues to defend economic and political engagement with North Korea. Joint ventures—a tourist resort and a light industrial project—bring much needed hard currency into North Korea. South Korean opposition figures contend this money helped fund Pyongyang’s nuclear program, and polling shows the popularity of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun to be at least one sure casualty of the nuclear test (Economist). Ties between Washington and Seoul remain fragile.

But China’s actions merit most attention. Susan Shirk, an Asian affairs specialist at the University of California, says “the North Korean nuclear test, by driving China to become part of the solution and averting conflict between China and Japan, shifted strategic ground in Northeast Asia” (YaleGlobal). More than ever, agrees CFR Vice President Gary Samore, China is in the driver’s seat.

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