China Aims to Steady North Korea


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Jun 8, 2009
China Aims to Steady North Korea

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s leader gave an unusually exuberant welcome this week to the prime minister of China, whose trip was intensely monitored by the rest of the world for progress on efforts to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

But the deal struck by the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China had far more to do with the two countries’ shared goal — stability in North Korea.

When Mr. Kim met Mr. Wen on Monday, North Korea said it was ready to return to six-nation talks on ending its nuclear program — but only if it saw progress in bilateral talks with the United States, state-run media in China and North Korea reported Tuesday. For months, North Korea had insisted that it would never return to the talks demanded by the United States, calling them “dead.”

North Korea’s reversal came after China signed a series of agreements that promised aid for the North and an expansion in economic exchanges, including the construction of another bridge across their tightly controlled river border.

In somewhat ceremonial language, the two governments also vowed to support each other “for generations to come” — a pledge interpreted as a reference to the ill health of Mr. Kim and the possibility that the youngest of his three sons, Kim Jong-un, is being groomed as his successor.

It was unclear whether Kim Jong-un was formally introduced to Mr. Wen.

A belligerently anti-American North Korea has often been considered as China’s buffer against American influence in the region. China also wants to ward off an implosion by North Korea, which would endanger the stability of its own border area.

“The results of Wen Jiabao’s trip show that China’s foremost concern is to secure stability in North Korea,” said Han Suk-hee, an expert on Chinese-North Korean relations at the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. “The deals they signed are aimed at ensuring stability in North Korea even after Kim Jong-il is gone. China effectively announced that it did not agree with the United States and South Korea on sanctions against North Korea.”

The joint announcement gave China something on the nuclear front to show the world — if only a vaguely worded promise to possibly return to talks — that might ease international pressure on it to do more on North Korea.

But the limits of the deal were underlined by the South Korean news agency Yonhap, which said North Korea was in the final stage of restoring its plutonium plant. That plant was mothballed after an international agreement in 2007 but revived in a fury after the North’s missile and nuclear tests prompted new international sanctions this year.

North Korea has repeatedly used negotiations over ending its nuclear weapons program as a way of extracting aid and diplomatic concessions from other countries. North Korea has so far received $2.2 billion under failed international deals aimed at persuading it to dismantle its nuclear facilities, according to a report this week by Kwon Young-se, a governing party lawmaker in South Korea.

While the economic assistance China promised may elevate its leverage over North Korea, it may also deprive the United States and South Korea of theirs by sapping the strength of sanctions, analysts said.

“This is a breakthrough for Kim Jong-il,” said Chang Yong-seok, research director at the nonprofit Institute for Peace Affairs in Seoul. “China reconfirmed that it remained the biggest patron of the North Korean regime. It’s a boost for Kim Jong-il’s grip on power.

“But one can imagine frustration in Washington.”

Ian C. Kelly, a State Department spokesman, said the government was waiting to hear the details from the Chinese.

South Korea said it had already expressed concern about whether the Chinese moves violated United Nations Security Council sanctions.

“We are expecting China to explain the details of its economic cooperation programs with North Korea and whether they violated the Security Council resolutions,” Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan told a group of South Korean news media editors, according to Yonhap.

Mr. Yu described Beijing’s diplomacy as a combination of sanctions and engagement arising out of a concern that isolation and pressure alone would drive North Korea only to strengthen its nuclear weapons programs.

China’s trade and aid have become more crucial to North Korea’s survival, especially with South Korea refusing to send aid to the North during the past year and a half. Last year, trade between China and North Korea reached $2.79 billion, up 41.3 percent from 2007. That has slipped in the first eight months of this year to $1.6 billion, a fall of 6.2 percent from the same months last year.

Some analysts say that China’s influence over North Korea may be overstated.

“China has long sought to parlay economic engagement into political influence over North Korea, ” said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “Beijing’s efforts, however, have been for naught. Despite extensive Chinese government largess and business engagement, the Chinese leadership was unable to persuade North Korea to abandon either nuclear weapons program nor prevent long-range missile launches and nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.”

Even in the North’s discussion of returning to talks, it held to its longstanding approach of framing the issue of its nuclear weapons program largely as a matter between itself and the United States. “We expressed our readiness to hold multilateral talks, depending on the outcome” of bilateral talks with the United States, said the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency in a report on the Kim-Wen meeting. “The six-party talks are also included in the multilateral talks.”

“The hostile relations between the D.P.R.K. and the United States should be converted into peaceful ties through the bilateral talks without fail,” the agency quoted Mr. Kim as saying, using the initials for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name.

Washington said recently that it was open to direct negotiations with the North to coax it back to the six-nation talks, which also include South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

But both the United States and South Korea have said that bilateral discussions should not be a substitute for six-nation negotiations and that they will maintain sanctions until North Korea relents on its nuclear program.

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