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China Must Just Say 'No' To North Korea Before It's Too Late

Unprecedented worries over the Korean Peninsula
Unprecedented worries over the Korean Peninsula
Zhang Jianjing

BEIJING - It has been several weeks since North Korea conducted its third nuclear test on February 12. The international community has condemned it, and the worry expressed is unprecedented.

China, in a very unusual move, summoned the North Korean Ambassador to Beijing the same day. The UN Security Council immediately made a declaration condemning the test. President Barack Obama, after contacting the heads of state of Japan and South Korea to reiterate the nuclear protection offered by the United States, held consultations with the two countries in Washington D.C.

The test showed that North Korea has made significant progress in nuclear weapon technology. This is coupled with the launch last December of its BrightStar-3 earth observation satellite, which demonstrated that their delivery capabilities have also advanced. This means that the Korean Peninsula now, in all likelihood, includes a country with intercontinental nuclear strike capability.

With more tests by Pyongyang believed to be on their way, we are now looking at a situation that risks getting out of control.

That North Korea is faced off against the international community is a blow for China's international prestige. China has been making painstaking efforts to promote a peaceful settlement of the North Korean nuclear issue. In 2003, Chinese leaders established and led the "six-party talks" mechanism, which was once considered to be a very constructive approach and gave the international community hope of seeing the issue resolved.

However, a decade has passed without any progress. North Korea has unilaterally and openly expressed its strong dissatisfaction with the six-party talks. It announced its permanent withdrawal from this mechanism four years ago. And now it has crossed the nuclear threshold, openly declaring itself to be a "nuclear state."

All involved parties need to undertake a review of their policy failure over North Korea. It should be noted that the international community's efforts over the years have failed to constrain North Korea's nuclear ambition. The main reason lays within North Korea itself, which is driven by a need to safeguard its national system.

Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea has felt a real sense of insecurity. It's convinced that only by possessing a nuclear deterrent can it ensure its safety. Ultimately solving the North Korean nuclear issue will depend on whether North Korea can eventually change its perception of both its own and international conditions.

Currently, a lot of the foreign press offer sarcastic criticism over China's stance and strategy on the North Korea nuclear issue. Objectively speaking the issue is a very complex one, and it is unfair and counter-productive to simply blame China. All must look harder at their own failings.

Still, allowing North Korea to develop nuclear arms does not sit well with China's national interests. China has never wavered in its stance over the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and insists in solving the issue through peaceful negotiation in the search of stability in the region. The Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, which is still in effect, makes it impossible for China to accept solving the North Korean nuclear issue through war.

Denuclearization and stability are hence the two fulcrums of China's policy towards Pyongyang. But it is clear that North Korea took advantage of the point about stability. Knowing they never really risked having to go to war, North Korea's leaders managed to bide time with the international community, including China, while little by little building the capacity of their nuclear program.

If North Korea really undertakes the fourth and fifth nuclear tests later this year, it will be a serious provocation to the Northeast Asian states, including China. Such obstinancy will lead to a further deterioration of the region’s security situation. Once Pyongyang possesses nuclear weapons, the United States may very decide to deploy nuclear weapons on Japanese and South Korean territory -- or we may even see those two countries start to develop their own nuclear forces.

Therefore, China must take resolute measures to prevent such a situation occurring. But the space left to China has become increasingly cramped. Chinese leaders ought not to allow North Korea to insist on clinging to its course. In addition to continuing the coordination of the six-party talks on the nuclear issue, China should take firm measures to prevent the development of the peninsula’s nuclear capabilities.

First, China should harden its resolute opposition stance. For instance, it needs to increase sanctions on North Korea and freeze all aid to it. China has got to let North Korea know that Chinese people won’t agree to continue supporting a country that has a more than 70% trade dependence on China, accepts each year huge amounts of oil and food in aid from China and that at the same time threatens China’s national interests.

North Korea ought to know that it’s time to stop and respect China’s bottom line.

Second, politically, China should urge North Korea to initiate domestic reforms and support it opening up. A closed, aggressive and extremely sensitive North Korea is not in line with China’s interests. It needs to be made explicit to North Korea that China supports a state that is moving towards reforms and openness, and that China is willing to strive for a steady international environment to make such a North Korea possible. China should also show explicitly that a non-annexation unification of the Korean Peninsula complies with China’s self interest.

Third, it should be clear that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is in China’s long-term strategy, and not simply some kind of political or diplomatic expedient. The denuclearization of this peninsula is to be regarded as a core interest for China. China should be determined to resist without compromise any attempt to deploy or develop nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula

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