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How China seeks to play a winning North Korean hand
Dong Li, Special to The Epoch Times

Pyongyang is losing no time processing nuclear bombs using technology from Pakistan, while the U.S. presidential candidates are debating on the framework for negotiations with North Korea. Why can’t the U.S. simply remove this “evil” source of nuclear proliferation just as it eradicated Saddam Hussein? Unlike Iraq, the issue of North Korea is related to China. The China factor easily reminds Americans of the traumatic sacrifice of 54,246 service men and women killed during the Korean War in the early 1950’s.

China is a big nuclear power and strives to be the principal regional power. With the Friendship and Mutual Assistance Treaty of 1961, North Korea and China have had a solid military alliance for over 40 years, and China is prepared to commit substantial military forces in case of another Korean war, according to a recent report in South Korea.

To avoid a direct confrontation with China over North Korea, U.S. foreign policy has sought to engage China, involving China in negotiations aimed at a nuclear free North Korea, while depending on China’s influence over North Korea.

Recent Conflicts between the “Lips and Teeth”

Many have heard China claim in the post-Korean War period that China and North Korea are as close as the “lips and teeth.” However, the relationship between the two has been plagued by the influx of North Korean refugees; by China’s detention of a Chinese citizen named Yang Bing who had been appointed by Kim Jong-il as the Governor of Shineuijoo (a state on the border to China); and by China’s ever increasing elite and popular opposition to North Korea, among other causes.

A recent conflict over an article scheduled to be published in Strategy and Management, a journal with a readership in the military command, best illustrates the current uneasy relationship. The “trouble-making” article openly criticized Kim Jong-il’s domestic and foreign policies, and even advocated withdrawing support for North Korea. In mid-September 2004, a high level Chinese delegation went to Pyongyang to apologize to Kim Jong-il. Meanwhile Kim Jong-il cancelled his scheduled secret visit to China in September, and North Korea unilaterally stopped accepting Chinese tourists for the first time in recent years. Subsequently the journal was ordered to stop publication. The implication is clear: China’s influence on North Korea has much diminished. The North Korean tail seems to be wagging the Chinese dog.

Bumpy History

The recent conflict occurs within the context of a long pattern of struggle between the two communist regimes. China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and Kim Jong-il disliked each other. In his 1978 visit to North Korea, Deng questioned North Korea’s unwise spending of China’s aid on building Kim Il-sung’s statues. This reminded Deng of Mao’s cult of personality and how Mao had personally persecuted him. Kim Jong-il was the man behind this statue building movement.

Kim Jong-il retaliated with a purge of pro-China cadres and an instigation of anti-China sentiment. Later, after his visit to Shenzhen, China’s showplace for economic reform, Kim Jong-il called the reform “revisionism,” an ideological accusation China itself had used to fight against the Soviet Union’s supremacy in the communist movement. China responded with a “Cash Policy,” requesting North Korea pay cash for the Chinese economic assistance.

To patch up the troubled relationship, Jiang Zemin (General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party) visited Pyongyang in 1990. Li Peng (the Chinese Premier) and Yong Shangkun (the Chinese President) subsequently visited Pyongyang in 1991 and 1992. However, China’s establishing formal diplomatic relations with South Korea in September 1992 drove North Korea even crazier. North Korea cast an unfavorable vote opposing China’s sponsorship of the 2000 Olympic Games in 1993, which caused strong public indignation in China. In response, China slashed two thirds of its food assistance to North Korea. The relationship did not recover until Kim’s two secret visits to China in May 2000 and January 2001, and Jiang’s visit to North Korea in September 2001.

The two communist brothers have been uneasy, suspicious and jealous of each other. This uncomfortable relationship has never won China a commanding influence over North Korea.

Impact of China’s Energy and Grain Shortage

For a long time China has been a major patron of North Korea. On an annual basis, China provides North Korea millions of tons of oil, coal and food. This has played an important role in maintaining the relationship as stipulated in the 1961 Economic and Military Alliance Treaty between the two countries.

However, China’s ability to assist North Korea has been under great pressure due to a recent energy and grain shortage. With China’s largest oil field, Daqing, being gradually drained out, China became the second largest importer and consumer of oil in 2003. More than 40% of global oil demand now comes from China. In China’s major developed areas such as Beijing and Shenzhen drivers are purchasing gas coupons in a panic. Many gas stations have drained their tanks. In the major cities in the South diesel is also in short supply. China is estimated to be short of 107 million tons of oil in 2004.

Meanwhile, China’s demand for electricity (coal-fired thermal power plants generate 80%) increased by 16% in the first half of 2004. Some 24 provinces had to ration the supply of electricity due to the shortage. In some key industrial provinces such as Zhejiang, factories only have electricity to operate for 3 or 4 days a week. The coal reserve has been at a 20 year low. The production and railroad transportation of coal have been increased to the breaking point. It is estimated China will begin to import coal in 4 years.

To make matters worse, since 1999 China’s grain production has been continuously decreasing at an ever-increasing speed. In 2004 China’s grain imports exceeded exports for the first time. Correspondingly, China’s grain per capita dropped to a 20-year low and cultivatable land diminished to an historic low.

With this difficult energy and grain crisis China faces a hard time in keeping up the aid of energy and grain to North Korea. This has further diminished China’s ability to influence North Korea. China’s declining assistance may add to Pyongyang’s preference for U.S. as well as international help.

Hu Jingtao, having inherited the troubled relationship with North Korea, facing an ever-increasing influx of refugees and internal pressure to dissolve the alliance with North Korea, even as China’s aid to North Korea declines, may be hard-pressed to find a way to regain some leverage over North Korea. Relying on China’s ability to influence North Korea in negotiations may be like estimating the weight of a hollow metal ball as though it were solid.

China’s International Power Map

Nonetheless, China’s “Peaceful Rise” strategy of becoming the dominant regional power has already counted on benefits to be gained from China’s role in the North Korea talks. China expects in return for arranging the multilateral talks a change by the U.S. in its policy toward Taiwan. When China rudely brushed off Colin Power’s recent suggestion of initiating peace talks with Taiwan, a clear message was sent that China’s position was strengthened so long as the U.S. desired China’s influence on North Korea. Both China and North Korea are waiting to see who will be the next U.S. president before they make their next moves.

China does not want to see North Korea collapse, nor does China want to see it to be prosperous. A powerful North Korea does not serve China’s national interest, but China’s aid to North Korea does. It just sustains North Korea’s survival. So long as North Korea is merely surviving, North Korea provides a buffer zone for China and best serves China’s strategic goals. A merely surviving North Korea with a nuclear threat provides China with the appearance of having influence it can exchange for U.S. compromises on other issues.

China does not hold the strong hand in North Korea that many in the U.S. have assumed, but is nevertheless prepared to cash in. Even though China’s leverage on North Korea may never have been as great as many have assumed, and is now diminishing, the U.S. attempt to use such leverage adds to China's power in the region while possibly leading to important U.S. concessions. China’s sustaining North Korea best serves its interests in an eventual world power struggle with the U.S.

Dong Li holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Columbia University. He is a China specialist who does news analysis for New Tang Dynasty T.V.

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