If North Korea has in the past made a habit of annoying China, its only ostensible ally in the world, what must Beijing be thinking now? For most of the past six years, China has been the host and chief promoter of the so-called six-party talks. Their explicit goal: to get North Korea to give up its nuclear-weapons program. When the North launched another long-range ballistic missile in early April, China helped promote the fig leaf at the U.N. Security Council that the rocket carried a communications satellite and thus might not be a direct violation of two U.N. resolutions calling on the North to cease its nuclear and ballistic-missile programs. The result was a toothless “presidential statement” from the Security Council. But with the test of another nuke on May 25 this one over 20 times more powerful than the squib the North exploded in its first test three years ago along with several missile launches, Pyongyang has put the Chinese leadership in the one place they hate to be during an international crisis: directly on the spot. Indeed, says Alan Romberg, a former U.S. State Department official now with the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, “Pyongyang has spit in [China’s] eye.”
The question everyone from President Barack Obama down is now asking What does China want from Kim Jong Il isn’t necessarily the right one. China’s leaders have said that a nuclear North Korea is contrary to their “core interests.” The more important question is: How much leverage does Beijing actually have over the North, and how much political will do the Chinese have to defend those core interests
To begin to understand the situation, the outside world should start by ignoring the standard cliché that the two communist governments are “as close as lips and teeth.” Over the years, says Bruce Klingner, a senior analyst at Washington’s Heritage Foundation and a former deputy chief for the Koreas in the CIA’s analysis section, “the talk in both capitals about the other has often been pretty scathing.” Even during the Cold War, Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il’s father, would routinely play the Soviet Union and China off each other. But while China and North Korea have never been as close as the propaganda would have it, the two countries do have shared interests. It’s how much weight to give those interests, relative to the costs of supporting Pyongyang internationally, that vexes China.
Just as there have been tensions in Washington over how to handle the North, so, too, are there conflicting opinions in Beijing over what to do. A diplomatic source who had direct involvement in the six-party talks says the Chinese Foreign Ministry has been more willing to accommodate the concerns of Washington, Tokyo and Seoul. But the other, and probably more powerful, influence in Beijing is the international department of the Chinese Communist Party, which tends to be pro-Pyongyang. Those two factions often struggle to influence the decisions of the senior leadership in Beijing, whose “red lines” seem to be a “constantly moving target,” as John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., puts it.
This tension stems mainly from the fact that China prefers North Korea to exist, even in its impoverished and infuriating current form, as opposed to what it sees as the other possibility: a unified Korean peninsula aligned with the U.S. Klingner says Beijing has for years feared a North Korean implosion, in the manner of the former East Germany’s, because it would come with costs both economic and diplomatic . The costs to Beijing of kicking the North Korea can down the road by negotiating endlessly within the six-party talks were, with Washington’s support, minimal.
But now Beijing has been humiliated by Pyongyang’s latest provocations, which is why there may be hope that the U.N. Security Council will be able to up the ante by imposing tougher economic sanctions on Kim’s regime. In April, after the missile launch, Beijing did not stand in the way when three North Korean companies were moved from a U.S. sanctions list to a U.N. sanctions list meaning that all nations are obliged to cut off business ties to those companies. The breadth of the sanctions is now likely to be much wider: not only must China not run interference for North Korea, diplomats say, it needs to actively enforce whatever measures the U.N. may eventually pass.
The North rebuffed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent invitation to return to the six-party talks. China, in the wake of the test, suspended all government exchanges with North Korea and could inflict considerable economic pain on Pyongyang by cutting off trade and fuel shipments. China now must decide whether or not, in truth, a nuclear North is against its core interests. And it must do so with the world watching closely.