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China Limits ‘Extreme Sanctions’ for North Korea

October 13, 2006 at 6:10 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Since Monday, when North Korea claimed it had successfully tested a nuclear weapon, the focus has been on China. Would the long-time North Korean ally support the tough resolution called for by the U.S. and Japan?

On North Korea, Iran or Sudan, China has been opposed to U.N. resolutions that could open the way to military force or sanctions China says are too punitive. China’s U.N. representative was cautious when advocating his country’s position.

WANG GUANGYA, U.N. Ambassador, China: I think that there are common objectives unifying all council members, that we should send a strong, clear message. But there are some differences in which way the language would be effective, especially in terms of providing more rooms for diplomatic efforts.

RAY SUAREZ: The Bush administration has tried to convince the Chinese, who have a veto at the U.N. Security Council, that the danger to them is clear and that China should not tolerate North Korea’s actions. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: I think the Chinese clearly understand the gravity of the situation. They clearly understand that the North Koreans, in doing this, have made the environment much less stable and much less secure.

RAY SUAREZ: China, a participant in the six-party nuclear talks, has been allied with North Korea since the first days of the Cold War. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, was welcomed in Beijing just last January. And China’s relations with South Korea have been improving, even as the current government in Seoul tries to better ties with the North.

Today, the Chinese president hosted Roh Moo-hyun, the president of South Korea. The two countries agreed to take what the South Koreans called “necessary and appropriate actions” against North Korea.

For more on this, we get two views. Michael Green was senior director for Asian affairs on President Bush’s National Security Council staff in 2004 and 2005. He’s now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and also teaches at Georgetown University.

Ming Wan is associate professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University. He was born in Beijing and is now a U.S. citizen.

China's position on N. Korea

Ming Wan
George Mason University
Chinese position on the nuclear issue in the Korean Peninsula has always been clear: China does not want to see nuclear weapons there.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Green, why has China blocked efforts to place heavy sanctions on North Korea over this test?

MICHAEL GREEN, Former National Security Council Staff: Well, China's position has evolved. In 2002, when North Korea was found to have cheated on its previous agreements, China's official position was that they had no association with the program.

I think in New York, actually, they're no longer blocking, that they have agreed in principle to sanctions. There's some haggling over the details, but I think probably by Monday they'll come out with a resolution under Chapter 7 that stops short of military action but imposes financial sanctions on North Korean entities that are engaged in missile or nuclear activities.

So I think China's position has come quite a long way, and they're quite unhappy with what North Korea has done, and they're going to impose some punishment for it.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Wan, you see that same movement?

MING WAN, George Mason University: Yes, I think that the big story here is how much China actually agrees with the U.S. and how much tougher China is on North Korea than it has ever been.

RAY SUAREZ: But isn't China bothered, threatened by the prospect of a nuclear North Korea?

MING WAN: Oh, yes. And, I mean, Chinese position on the nuclear issue in the Korean Peninsula has always been clear: China does not want to see nuclear weapons there. And even though China took a softer line on North Korea than the U.S., but the bottom line is that Beijing does not want to see nuclear weapons.

So when North Korean tested a nuclear bomb, if it turned out to be true, and that's just a direct challenge to Chinese position and to China's core national interests.

Concerns over regional stability

Michael Green
Former National Security Council Staff
The Chinese recognize that, if they don't take some action now, they're going to get both worst-case scenarios, a nuclear-armed North Korea and an unstable North Korea.

RAY SUAREZ: But isn't China at least as threatened as the Japanese, who wanted the harshest response of all?

MING WAN: Right. But at the same time, you know, China is more concerned about the collapse of the North Korean regime. And people talk about refugee issue. Actually, the situation potentially is worse than that, because North Korea has a million active-duty soldiers. And if you add demobilized soldiers, if the regime collapses quickly, we might have hundreds and thousands of armed men and women storming into China. And that's just a terrible scenario.

RAY SUAREZ: Really? Is that what's at stake here? Could one of the most powerful, populous and now resurgent countries on the planet be that much threatened by instability in North Korea?

MICHAEL GREEN: It's really stunning. And I have to say, when I was participating in these six-party negotiations, it was surprising to me how frightened the Chinese leadership is of what we've just heard, of a collapse of North Korea, of these millions of soldiers with arms of uncontrolled chemical weapons.

The Chinese have a lot on their hands right now. They have had 90,000 internal protests. At the northeastern corner of China, where the border with North Korea is, has millions of ethnic Koreans who are not entirely happy because their part of China is not growing.

So China has a lot on its hands right now and doesn't want to see this collapse of the North. And that's why it's striking that they've agreed to these tough steps. They don't want to take so many sanctions that North Korea might collapse, but they're clearly pushing the envelope a bit more than we've ever seen before to put some pressure on the North.

RAY SUAREZ: Does China openly worry about an arms race in the neighborhood? South Korea is questioning whether its Sunshine Policy is worth it. Japan has been talking about revisiting its postwar constitution that limited its military.

MICHAEL GREEN: I would note, by the way, that the Japanese prime minister came out and said they're not going to go down the nuclear path. And South Korea is also being prudent.

But, yes, China does worry about an arms race. They do not want a nuclear North Korea, but they also don't want this instability. And I think what you've seen over the past few months is the Chinese recognize that, if they don't take some action now, they're going to get both worst-case scenarios, a nuclear-armed North Korea and an unstable North Korea.

And that's why I think you see them taking more action, less than the U.S., less than Japan, but certainly more than we've ever seen China do in the previous three or four years trying to tackle this problem.

China's influence over North Korea

Ming Wan
George Mason University
China does not want to see a dictator with nuclear weapons on its border. And it threatens what China considers to be a very important strategic objective of having a peaceful environment for economic reform and modernization.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Professor Wan, all during the life of the six-party talks, people have always talked about how much influence China has over North Korea. And here we saw China openly discouraging this test and the test going ahead anyway. Is China's influence exaggerated?

MING WAN: Well, in a way, China has some influence and it just didn't use the influence to the fullest extent. For example, China could have cut off the supplies of food and of fuel. China could have protected North Korea less, you know, in terms of taking the issue to the U.N. Security Council.

And clearly, the nuclear tests, the reason why China is so angry is because this is a direct challenge to all the Chinese effort. And so, as a result, you can argue that China's power, influence to persuade North Korea has diminished. Now, you know, China is supporting sanctions on North Korea. On the other hand, you can also argue that, if China chooses to use pressure on North Korea, it retains significant influence.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Green, you just heard Professor Wan talk about how China stepped back from really using the influence it had. Why did it do that?

MICHAEL GREEN: Well, China trades almost $2 billion with North Korea. That's over half of their trade. China provides most of their fuel, most of their food. They could pull the plug. But because they're so worried about the results of instability, they haven't done it.

What will be interesting over the coming weeks and months is to see how China responds as North Korea inevitably, in my view, escalates one more step and tries to intimidate China more, and whether that will cause the Chinese government in turn to step up the pressure more or to step back and wonder whether maybe they've already taken too much pressure.

But for now, the Chinese, you know, clearly are ready to squeeze this regime more than they have in the past.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree with Professor Wan's point that they've lost some of their leverage through this whole process?

MICHAEL GREEN: They've lost face, enormous face, and they've been humiliated. And the North Koreans, I think, tested this nuclear weapon, not just because of the United States, but to send a message to China, as well, that they don't want to come under Chinese influence. They intend to preserve their autonomy and not be influenced by China's enormous economic power.

So they've changed the terms of the game with China and suggested, with the nuclear weapon, that China doesn't have the influence. And so that may be also why the Chinese are now saying back to the North Koreans, "Oh, yes, we do, indeed, have influence, and we'll show you."

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Professor Wan, this isn't just a bilateral dispute. The United States was actively involved here. And when you add America's stated interest in this into the mix, how does that change China's position? Some columnists have suggested that China might be secretly pleased that the North Koreans went ahead and thumbed their nose at the United States.

MING WAN: Not about nuclear tests.

RAY SUAREZ: Yes.

MING WAN: Prior to this, you could argue that some people in China might think that it is not that terrible a thing, North Korea is challenging the United States. But since China and the U.S. are not exactly strategic allies, if U.S. has, you know, formed alliance with, you know, subdued everybody in East Asia, than the pressure would be so much greater on China.

But then the bottom line is that China does not want to see nuclear weapons, and now North Korea has made that important step. And now the Chinese see North Korea actually as a direct threat to its core national interest.

China does not want to see a dictator with nuclear weapons on its border. And it threatens what China considers to be a very important strategic objective of having a peaceful environment for economic reform and modernization.

Diverging interests

Michael Green
Former National Security Council Staff
The Chinese are fundamentally rethinking their relationship with North Korea, as we've heard, and looking at a very different game, and looking at some hard choices: whether or not to put even more pressure on North Korea.

RAY SUAREZ: Now you've just said that they don't want to see a dictator with nuclear weapons on their border. But a couple of minutes ago, you said they stepped back from using all the leverage they had in this case.

MING WAN: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: How do you square those two things?

MING WAN: Yes, that's before they had this test. Now, you know, once they have a nuclear test, essentially the ball game has changed to a large extent.

You can also argue it is a matter of time China will have sort of a break with North Korea, because China's national interest and values have diverged from those of North Korea for a long time now. These are two different countries now.

And actually, you know, people wonder why China did not break with North Korea earlier, and there are different reasons. One reason is a regime, worry about regime collapse. And you can also argue it simply inertia. But, you know, the North Korean government keeps pushing. And essentially, they are forcing China to take a step. And then the people in China think, "Who do we have more in common, the United States or North Korea?" The answer is clearly with the United States, and that's what the Chinese government is doing about.

RAY SUAREZ: So all that emphasis on this long alliance -- the China of Mao is a very different place, but the North Korea of Kim Il-sung, I guess, isn't, huh?

MICHAEL GREEN: For decades, they described their relationship, Chinese-North Korea relationship, as being as close as lips and teeth. And, in fact, what has happened is the teeth have bit the lips, and the Chinese are fundamentally rethinking their relationship with North Korea, as we've heard, and looking at a very different game, and looking at some hard choices: whether or not to put even more pressure on North Korea; how far to go; whether or not to risk instability in the North.

I think this is going to lead inevitably to discussions between the U.S., China and the other parties about what to do if North Korea starts falling apart, because Kim Jong Il has overstepped and has overplayed his hand.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me just find out from Professor Wan what China's options are in the near term. What can the country do in response?

MING WAN: Well, if Kim Jong Il does not listen to the international community, nobody really has very good options. But what China can do now essentially is to participate in putting pressure on North Korea.

And earlier, we talked about China's position is somewhat different from the U.S., in terms of how strong sanctions. And I agree with Mike that maybe it is a moot point, because the chance is Kim will react to the sanctions. And Kim is not going to appreciate China's quote, unquote, "nuanced position." And then if they make another provocative move and then China probably will be moving closer to the U.S.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Wan, Professor Green, gentlemen, thank you both.

MICHAEL GREEN: Thank you.

MING WAN: Thank you.