- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
In the buildup to North Korea’s nuclear test and its aftermath, China has been very harsh on the North Koreans, and now we have an envoy, Tang Jiaxuan carrying a personal message from President Hu Jintao to the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il. What does all this say about the North Korean-Chinese relationship? It’s quite frosty, isn’t it?
Yes, I think there’s a great deal of tension in the relationship right now. I think the Chinese very clearly wanted the North Koreans not to test missiles in July. They wanted the Koreans very clearly not to test nuclear weapons, and in both cases North Koreans ignored the warnings. So for the Chinese it’s not only a loss of face because they had been taking the lead in trying to bring North Korea back to the negotiation table, but I think there’s also a great deal of anger personally at Kim and the Korean military.
It seems strange for China to be kicked around a bit by this much smaller country that relies very heavily on Chinese imports for its economy. Can’t the Chinese really bring pressure to bear on them to stop all this?
Well, I think there’s a widespread belief in China that they do not want and cannot handle a collapse of North Korea. And North Korea knows that, and so knows that China can only push it so far. So, clearly, China has the most tools to use against North Korea compared to the United States or Japan, but it’s unwilling to use the probably most effective ones, which is oil and food, because it is so afraid of destabilizing the peninsula. I think North Korea, when it was in the run-up to the test, thought about what China could do to it, what the cost would be, and Korea thought that it could handle them. I think probably the Koreans assumed that China would not cut off their oil.
Now I see in the delegation that went to Pyongyang is the Chinese diplomatic head of their delegation at the Six-Party Talks. I suppose China would really like to get these Six-Party Talks resumed.
I think that the Chinese would like the Six-Party Talks to start up again, and I think there is some sense on the Chinese side that the two sides need to speak to each other.
The two sides meaning…?
North Korea and the United States. You see in a lot of the public comments even when the Chinese criticized North Korea, there would be comments about how there needs to be direct negotiations between the two sides. So, China is working through the Six-Party as the United States wants it to, but is also trying to arrange bilateral talks.
Remind me, U.S. policy is that the United States will talk to North Korea privately, but only within the context of the Six-Party Talks, isn’t it?
I think we held out the promise that, yes, once the Six-Party Talks are reconvened, that we can have a meeting on the side. The policy now has become that more bilateral talks are not necessary.
Leading up to that September agreement in principle last year which quickly collapsed, there were a number of bilateral meetings, yes?
In the context of the Six-Party Talks, yes.
And North Korea’s condition is the United States stop the financial crackdown on banks that have dealt with Korea’s money laundering and counterfeiting?
That is one of the main ones. Also, they have called for a security agreement with the United States. The United States has consistently said that we’re not going to attack North Korea, but I think the North Koreans want a signed security agreement between the two states.
Before they go back to the talks? Or it’s the first item of business? Because that general agreement principle that was issued in September, called for that as one of the elements.
The North Koreans have said that the United States broke the September agreement by going after the banks. The first provision of the accord was a general ratcheting down of pressure or tension between the two sides. Soon after the United States went after the banks, the North Koreans said, “you’ve broken the agreement.”
So at the moment, what do you think has to happen? Do you think they’ll have another test before anything else occurs?
I think, even with another test, I’m not clear what the outcome will be. I think the way it’s falling out is the United States is working to try and focus on a kind of counter-proliferation issue, not seriously trying to bring North Korea back to the table, or seriously believes that it can negotiate North Korea’s nukes away. A goal of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s current trip to Asia, especially when she meets with the Chinese, is trying to make sure that they will tighten up this inspection issues across the border.
And much has been made about the searching of ships, but actually as I understand, most of the commerce that North Korea does is by rail from South Korea and from China, yes?
Yes. I saw a South Korean newspaper was reporting that the South Koreans were going to increase cargo inspection. And then there were reports that the Chinese were inspecting cargo, but again we don’t know what kind of regime it’s going to be, is it every third truck, is it just a show? So I think that that’s what a lot of this focus will be on, figuring out, are the Chinese going to build a fairly robust system for doing this, or are they just going to inspect every third truck for a couple of weeks and then that will be the end of it?
But does North Korea need imports for its nuclear program? And there’s also sanctions against luxury goods, yes?
Yes, the luxury goods are clearly targeted at Kim and the leadership, because the profile we have of him is of a dandy playboy who imports 600,000 bottles of Hennessy cognac and who dabbles in movie-making. I think the inspections and the imports targeting the heavy weapons programs will be probably fairly effective. I think the U.S.’s primary concern, though, is preventing nuclear material from leaving North Korea. So, that I think is harder depending upon how sophisticated the North Koreans have made the devices, and how much material they need to sneak out.
Presumably they can fly it out, too.
Yes, they probably could fly it as well.
Talk a bit about how North Korea plays in the Chinese mind. I mean, do the Chinese feel close to North Korea? The Chinese went to war to save North Korea from the allies in the Korean War and they lost a lot of people in that war.
Yeah, I think the days of the socialist, internationalist camaraderie between the Chinese and the North Koreans are long over. I think there’s plenty of tension over the missile test. I think many Chinese think that Kim is as out of touch with reality as American analysts do. The Chinese have constantly tried to convince Kim that he should look to them as a role model for how you open up your economy, how you engage in reform. So you saw how Kim came to China. He went to Shanghai, he went to the south, to see all this economic development and the message from the Chinese was basically, “look, this is possible, you can do these things.” So I think the Chinese don’t feel particularly close to the North Koreans any longer. I think there’s a fear in China that the North Korean generals below Kim are extremely anti-Chinese, that there’s a great deal of nationalistic resentment of the two sides; the Chinese engaged in this historical project to redefine Korgyo, [which is] the dynasty or the empire that Koreans trace back to the original Korean dynasty. The Chinese have said actually that that was one of our dynasties; it was part of the Chinese history. So South Koreans in particular are very afraid that the Chinese have started doing this historical revisionism so that if North Korea would collapse, the Chinese could claim parts of North Korea as part of China.
That’s interesting. But of course, China has never in modern times occupied what is Korea; Japan has. Recently we’ve had this very stirring support for the United States from the new prime minister of Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. What does that tell us? Is that an important development in Asian security?
I think Abe has continued the policy of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in the sense that cooperation between the United States and Japan has been better than it’s been, probably for at least a decade if not before. The rise of China has had part to do with that. North Korea clearly has a part to do with that. I think Abe is clearly in that line of closer security cooperation with the United States. But if you remember in July, when North Korea tested, who did the South Koreans blame more, they blamed Japan. They said the Japanese were overreacting. There’s a lot of tension right now between South Korea and Japan, which makes it harder for the United States to coordinate policies.