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China Key to Resolving North Korea Nuclear Impasse, Ex-U.S. Envoy Says
WASHINGTON -- The key to finally resolving the international standoff over North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions is for China to realize it has more to gain than to lose from a reformed Pyongyang that stops threatening its neighbors, a former senior U.S. diplomat said on Tuesday.
“I think it is very clear that China has failed to develop an internal consensus on what to do about North Korea,” said Christopher Hill, who led the U.S. side in the last round of six-nation negotiations on North Korean denuclearization in 2008.
The United States and ally South Korea have long pressed the Chinese government to adopt a firmer approach toward Pyongyang. As Beijing is the impoverished North’s leading economic supporter, it is seen as having far more leverage than any other country to influence the insular Kim dynasty.
Beijing for years has propped up the regime, as it fears losing geopolitical influence if the Kim Jong Un government collapses, the North is absorbed by South Korea, and a unified Korea tilts toward the United States, according to Hill, a former assistant secretary of State.
There are also concerns inside the Chinese government that any North Korean implementation of democratic reforms would have a destabilizing impact on domestic policy inside China, Hill said without elaborating.
North Korean provocations in recent years have included launching deadly attacks against the South and repeated firings of long-range rockets in violation of U.N. Security Council prohibitions on the use of ballistic missile technology. There are also fresh concerns that Pyongyang might carry out a third nuclear test, particularly if it is punished with heightened U.N. Security Council sanctions for a December space launch.
Beijing is understood to have repeatedly pressed the Stalinist state not to detonate another underground atomic device while at the same time opposing calls for a strong Security Council response to the North’s rocket launch. As with all five permanent member nations, China holds veto authority over any council decisions.
“I think while China has had some success in terms of holding the total number of provocations down, China has not been successful in using the leverage it has to get the North Koreans” to honor denuclearization commitments made in September 2005, Hill said at a New York event sponsored by the Korea Society.
Those commitments include shuttering its nuclear weapons program, returning to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, accepting International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, and pursuing a lasting peace with South Korea. In return for these phased actions, Pyongyang would be rewarded with security pledges, economic assistance, and foreign aid from other nations in the six-party talks -- China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.
The nation is believed to hold enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons. Since the 2005 agreement, the North has carried out two nuclear tests, revealed a uranium enrichment program that could provide it a new path for producing fissile material, and initiated construction of an atomic reactor that could produce weapon-usable plutonium.
“I think the United States and [South Korea] need to have some serious talks with the Chinese about our objectives are” with regards to North Korea, said Hill, now the dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.
Hill said he sees a real possibility that China’s presumed next president, Xi Jinping, could support finally resolving the North Korean nuclear impasse.
Pyongyang’s track record of antagonistic and defiant actions has brought a significant amount of bad public publicity on China due to its repeated shielding of the pariah country from new Security Council punishments. Notwithstanding the concerns about what a toppled Kim regime will mean for China’s domestic politics, “I think there is a limit to how much China can support them,” Hill said.
Hill said Washington needs to spend more time improving ties with Beijing if it wants to see progress on the North Korea. “We need to establish a better relationship there” that is less transactional and more focused on gaining an understanding of the other side’s thinking, he said.
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