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China's mixed stance on N Korea
Paul Lin
9/1/2003



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`Anyone with a normally functioning brain would be unwilling to see a neighboring country develop nuclear weapons. Not even the authorities in Beijing want the crazy North Koreans to have nuclear weapons.'

A six-nation conference between the US, China, Russia, Japan and North and South Korea will be held in Beijing next week. The US has highly praised China for hosting the talks and the occasion has been seen as a new high point in Sino-US relations. To please the US even more, Beijing is doing its utmost to make the talks a success -- it is sending its deputy minister of foreign affairs, Wang Yi, to Pyongyang for talks, while Minister of Foreign Affairs Li Zhaoxing is going to Japan and South Korea.

On the face of things, Beijing is making an effort, but its mouthpiece the China Daily has reported that there is a consensus only to hold formal talks, and that more sincerity and compromise is needed if the North Korean nuclear weapons issue is to be resolved. The report warns that it is too early to say that the risk of war on the Korean Peninsula has been eliminated. It seems China is trying to avoid having the US expect too much since that would only mean greater disappointment and another blow to Sino-US relations.

By looking at where Beijing is sending its representatives we can see how there is more formality than substance. Beijing has sent only its deputy foreign minister to North Korea, while its foreign minister has gone to Japan and South Korea, making it clear that the visit to Pyongyang is only a deception. North Korea therefore is either waiting coolly, or has a tacit understanding with Beijing to put on a show. It is thus easy to foresee that this meeting is unlikely to produce any more substantive results than the previous three-state meeting.

The US government is in fact completely clear on the basic character of the "evil" North Korea, and that is why the US is constantly preparing an attack. A former top US military intelligence official recently revealed in the Washington Post that the US had finalized a detailed plan for attacking North Korea, possibly in an attempt to exert pressure on the North Koreans. This is of course not just empty posturing. If North Korea continues its thickheaded ways, an implementation of the plan cannot be ruled out.

There are two reasons why the US has no plans to immediately implement the plan. One reason is that the US still isn't able to pull out of Iraq, and therefore must do what it can to avoid war on two fronts. The other reason is the question of whether China once again will send troops to assist the North Koreans against the US. The first reason is just a matter of time, but the second reason is a major concern for the US.

In June, the Social Survey Institute of China asked 1,000 Chinese: "If the Korean issue cannot be satisfactorily solved and if it leads to a war, would the Chinese public be willing to support the government in once again helping North Korea resist the US?" The results showed that 57 percent of the participants were willing to do so and 24 percent were unwilling to reveal their opinion. Only 19 percent said they would oppose such an action. Fifty-four percent of the participants also believed that North Korea should be allowed to develop nuclear weapons if they really wanted to. How should we interpret these results?

First, this organization has an official background. Few would want to reveal their true feelings to such a group. All those 24 percent unwilling to reveal their opinions are probably opposed to sending troops, but are afraid to say so for fear of being called unpatriotic.

Second, more than half of the participants approve of letting North Korea develop nuclear weapons. Such an answer is pretty crazy. Anyone with a normally functioning brain would be un-willing to see a neighboring country develop nuclear wea-pons. Not even the authorities in Beijing want the crazy North Koreans to have nuclear weapons. But the participants in this survey may be completely unaware of the government's policies, and simply think that it is worth supporting someone having nuclear weapons as long as they think such wea-pons enables them to resist the US. This shows that the survey lacks credibility.

Third, participants in Chinese surveys regarding a war on Tai-wan or assisting North Korea will approve going to war because they are dissatisfied with the social situation. They hope that a major jolt to society will change their situation, but they are not willing to become cannon fodder themselves.

The Chinese government is keenly aware of the following.

First, the youth in the right age for going to war are all "small emperors" from the one-child generation. They fear hardship, and death even more so, and their will to fight is therefore weak.

Second, the Chinese army is very corrupt, just as it was during the later part of the Qing dynasty. Its morale can therefore not be compared to its morale just after World War II ended and the Chinese Communist Party first came to power.

Third, the US has no intention of invading China. They did not have the intent during the Korean War, and they have even less motivation now. During the Korean War, the Chinese government lied about American intentions in order to make the Chinese people accept sending troops to North Korea. If the US intended to occupy China, why did it abandon Chiang Kai-shek instead of intervening directly? Nor did they let Taiwan send troops to North Korea.

Most importantly, if China once again assists North Korea against the US, it will forfeit the results of its economic development over recent years and speed up its own collapse. What's more, if North Korea succumbs, the US will not stay around for long, but hand matters over to South Korea. The question of how China will react to a Greater Korean nationalism is a different issue.

Paul Lin is a political commentator based in New York.

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