CHINA'S LITTLE KOREA SECRET
Commentary, The Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2003
By Haesook Chae
Dr. Haesook Chae
Department of Political Science
Baldwin-Wallace College, Berea, Ohio
Why won't China rein in North Korea in the current nuclear
crisis? The answer lies in Beijing's secret goal of getting
U.S. troops off the peninsula.
The prevailing understanding on China is fundamentally
flawed. The consensus is that China shares common interests
with the U.S. and nations in the region in denuclearizing North
Korea. Therefore, it ought to play an active and leading
role in resolving the crisis, especially because Beijing seems
to have the most leverage over North Korea.
Much to the disappointment of the U.S., however, China
has excused itself from the "relevant parties." Beijing insists
that this is really a matter exclusively between the United
States and North Korea. Furthermore, China does not
believe that the U.S.- North Korean dialogue ought to include
the United Nations; Beijing has vociferously opposed
efforts to bring in the world body to bear on the issue. The
question is, why?
The key to understanding China's behavior is realizing
that exclusively bilateral talks could produce what China secretly
craves: the removal of the U.S. military presence from
the Korean peninsula.
In a multilateral setting, the emphasis would be on North
Korea's violation of the international Nuclear Nonproliferation
Treaty and its threat to the region and the world. Thus,
various multinational measures to disarm North Korea would be
discussed. U.N. involvement would remove the onus on the
U.S. to negotiate on its own.
However, if the situation were framed solely as a dispute
between the U.S. and North Korea, the focus would be
shifted to what North Korea is demanding in exchange
for nuclear disarmament. North Korea, with its far-reaching
missile capability, would then be perceived as a direct
threat to U.S. security. Combined with South Korea's strong
resistance to taking military action against the North, the
U.S. could well be cornered into conceding to North
Korean demands, namely, a nonaggression treaty and a
military withdrawal from South Korea. China would then
have achieved its short-term goal of removing U.S. troops
from the peninsula.
Ejection of the U.S. military presence is an essential
first step toward China's ultimate long-term goals: reunification
with Taiwan and reassertion as the dominant regional power.
After a U.S. withdrawal, China would be likely to find
two friendly Koreas on its southern border. Post-Cold
War South Korea is no longer a hostile country but an
important trading partner. And if a united Korea emerges,
it would probably be amicable toward China.
Further, if Japan rearms and goes nuclear in reaction
to the new circumstances on the Korean peninsula, the rationale
for the U.S. military presence there may be diminished
In this best-case scenario for China, with American forces
removed from Korea and Japan, Far East geopolitics would
enter a new era. China could reassert its historical status
as the dominant regional power and eventually reabsorb
Taiwan. This crisis may well drive the U.S. off the Korean
With this in mind, why should China help the U.S. to maintain
its military presence in South Korea by pressuring
North Korea to give up nuclear weapons? That China
appears constrained by anxieties over the potential flood of
starving refugees that would be created by North Korea's
economic collapse only serves as a cover for China to
prop up North Korea's bargaining position. China's sales
of a key chemical ingredient for nuclear weapons
development to North Korea, as recently as December, should
be understood within this context. China wants
North Korea to maintain its strong leverage in any bilateral
talks with the U.S.
Only when viewed from this perspective are China's inaction
and stubborn insistence on direct talks between
Pyongyang and Washington comprehensible; indeed, it is a profound
and brilliant strategy.