China's Role in Defusing the North Korean Nuclear Threat

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As U.S. officials announce they've held secret talks with North Korean officials, the world continues to work toward defusing the North Korean nuclear threat. But China shows few signs of stepping up economic sanctions on Pyongyang, fearing sanctions could send a wave of refugees across its border.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

US officials have held what's described as working-level talks with North Korean officials. The American embassy in Tokyo says the talks took place in New York last Friday and that they were intended to convey messages about US policy. It was not, the embassy statement stressed, a negotiating session.

South Korea has been trying to persuade North Korea to return to six-party talks on its nuclear weapons program, but several days of meetings involving negotiators from both the North and South ended today in Seoul without producing a breakthrough. And a South Korean official played down expectations that the six-party talks, which include China, Japan and Russia as well as the United States, will resume anytime soon.

For its part, China has been trying to persuade the Bush administration to display more flexibility toward North Korea, including opening up new channels of communication. NPR's Rob Gifford reports from Beijing.


Washington has suggested many times that Beijing could do more to get North Korea back to the negotiating table. But here in China, the feeling is exactly the opposite. Senior Chinese officials have rejected recent US lectures on revaluing their currency and restricting their textile exports. Last week, they added North Korea to that list as a senior Chinese diplomat openly laid much blame for the North Korean stalemate at Washington's feet. Shin Yong, a professor of international relations at People's University, says the feeling is broadly shared in Beijing.

Professor SHIN YONG (People's University): (Through Translator) I think this definitely presents the basic Chinese view, though it hasn't been said before publicly. The US attitude is one of the main reasons we're not making any progress. The situation is very bad indeed, and the US should change its hard-line stance towards North Korea.

GIFFORD: Today's announcement that US officials met North Korean officials in New York last week may offer a slight ray of hope that some form of negotiations may still be possible. But if not, the question is, where to now? The possibility of Pyongyang attacking Seoul and Tokyo if the US launches a surgical strike at North Korea all but rules out any military option. So for Washington, the most likely policy is to start wielding a larger diplomatic stick, a referral to the UN Security Council and an effort to get some kind of quarantine or even sanctions imposed on North Korea. Chinese officials and analysts are adamant that bigger sticks don't work.

Chu Fung(ph) is a professor of international relations at Beijing University.

Professor CHU FUNG (Beijing Universal): If you just look back to the past two years, every time North Korea gets back to the negotiation, it's not because Beijing used less stick but because Beijing just seduced--less creative ways to lure--carrots.

GIFFORD: The carrots are more economic aid, more food, more engagement, things that North Korea desperately needs. Diplomats say China and South Korea want to keep North Korea afloat, because if they cut off all assistance, the alternative could be a collapsed North Korea, which could bring waves of refugees over their borders and destabilize the region. Even if North Korea tests a nuclear bomb, Shin Yong says China is more likely to learn to live with it than agree to full sanctions that would cut off the food and fuel it ships across its border into North Korea.

Prof. YONG: (Through Translator) If North Korea did perform a nuclear test, it would certainly lead China to take some actions it hasn't taken before, such as some kind of economic sanctions. But would they go as far as the US wants? I'm not sure they would.

GIFFORD: Daniel Pinkston(ph), of the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, agrees.

Mr. DANIEL PINKSTON (Monterey Institute of International Studies): I think the Chinese might be willing to support some type of resolution in the UN Security Council if, in fact, North Korea does test. But the question is, what kind of resolution would they be willing to accept? I'm sure they would condemn a test--a North Korean nuclear test in very strong language, and they would privately express their displeasure to Pyongyang, I'm sure. But as far as any kind of broad, sweeping economic sanctions or an embargo or something like that, I don't believe they would do that.

GIFFORD: So whether North Korea tests a nuclear weapon or not, it seems Washington will still have trouble reaching a consensus in the region. Yesterday, on a visit to Australia, the US point man on North Korea, Christopher Hill, seemed to suggest that time was running out. He said that if six-party talks are not going to work, then the US will have to look at other options. But as recent weeks and, indeed, the last decade have shown, North Korea is the land of lousy options.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Beijing.

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