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China, North Korea and the Missile Threat

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China, North Korea and the Missile Threat

Analysis

China, North Korea and the Missile Threat

China, North Korea and the Missile Threat

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What role might China play in defusing a crisis over recent North Korean missile tests? Kenneth Lieberthal, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, discusses the Chinese perspective with Scott Simon.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, how do you cross devil country in Papau, New Guinea? Very carefully. But first, China's once again stepped into help try to ease tensions over North Korea's nuclear program. Today U.S. Envoy Christopher Hill said that China has proposed and the U.S. would support informal, multi-party talks that would include a bilateral meeting between the United States and North Korea. This week North Korea launched a flurry of missiles towards the Sea of Japan, breaking a seven-year moratorium on testing. The U.N. Security Council is now considering sanctions. China tried unsuccessfully to discourage North Korea from going forward with rocket tests, but China remains North Korea's most powerful ally and is still seen to have the most influence and perhaps leverage to diffuse the crisis.

Kenneth Lieberthal is former senior director for Asia on the National Security Council in the Clinton Administration. He now teaches political science at the University of Michigan and joins us from Ann Arbor. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. KENNETH LIEBERTHAL (University of Michigan; Former Senior Director for Asia, National Security Council): My pleasure.

SIMON: And how does China see these missile tests, different than the U.S. or Europe?

Mr. LIEBERTHAL: China certainly does not welcome the missile tests. They see the tests as disruptive, raising tensions in the region. So they agree with the United States and with France and others on that issue. Where they disagree is how best to deal with the situation in order to bring it to a better place than it is now.

SIMON: And their feeling is what?

Mr. LIEBERTHAL: Well, I think their analysis of Kim Jong-il, the leader of North Korea, is that Kim sees himself as playing from a weak hand. After all, he's dealing with the United States, Japan, China, much stronger countries, that Kim feels that if you apply real pressure to him, his only viable recourse is to escalate, because since these other players are much tougher, if he ever shows them that he'll give into pressure, they will simply up the pressure. And so their experience tells them that with Kim you have to give him some face, you have to not threaten his political power in order to get to an agreement. If you sanction him or threaten him, the result is the exact opposite of what you're seeking to achieve.

SIMON: How does China see its own interests in North Korea? It shares a border for example.

Mr. LIEBERTHAL: I think they feel they have two interests. One is they do not want North Korea to have a nuclear program because they really fear that that will produce results such as potentially the nuclearization of Japan and the Chinese see that as threatening to their own interests. But the other side of it is that the Chinese do not want instability in North Korea because as you mentioned, they share a long border, they recognize North Korea probably has nuclear weapons. If there's a breakdown of political authority there, there could be civil war and the loose nukes problem that the Chinese and Americans and others can be drawn into. They fear refugees spilling across the border, instability in South Korea and so forth. They will give North Korea what they calculate to be enough support that the North Korean regime will not collapse.

SIMON: But what about the argument that that is propping up one of the most vicious regimes in the world?

Mr. LIEBERTHAL: I have absolutely no disagreement with that argument. This is a miserable regime and the people under it suffer badly. The Chinese approach to that argument is to try to entice the North Koreans to follow a path of Chinese-style economic reform. Remember, the Chinese began with a Maoist system, arguably somewhat similar to what North Korea now has, but they've evolved very far away from that. And if you look, you find that they have taken Kim Jong-il on several tours of China to the areas where those reforms have produced the most spectacular results in China. They are also quietly training a number of people in the younger generation in North Korea in basically the equivalent of our MBA degree in order to create a cadre of knowledgeable people who will know how to reform the North Korean economy. This is a long-term play. They're hoping it works.

SIMON: When a series of missiles are fired as they were this week, and obviously the one that was most publicized apparently fell into the drink, does it make it seem as if the prospect of North Korea acquiring a deliverable weapons system is still years in advance, or does it, in a sense, increase the tensions?

Mr. LIEBERTHAL: I actually think that what occurred this past week is more serious than most people are allowing for, because the attention has really been on this long-range missile, and that failed 40 seconds after launch. But along with that, North Korean launched about a half a dozen other missiles. They did it in fairly rapid succession, they did it at night. They were demonstrating that within the region, certainly covering South Korea, Japan, and U.S. assets in Japan and South Korea, they had a fairly reliable missile capability, and give them some time and they'll figure out how to put some very powerful and nasty tips on those missiles.

SIMON: Kenneth Lieberthal teaches political science at the University of Michigan, former Senior Director for Asia in the National Security Council. Thank you very much.

Mr. LIEBERTHAL: My pleasure. Good to talk to you.

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