HONG KONG — “China should step up and defuse the situation,” an American official in Washington said to me in December, referring to the North Korean nuclear issue. “That’s what a great power would do — exert its influence and defuse the problem.”

For several months, American officials have been prodding China to use its influence to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. They are becoming increasingly impatient that the Chinese seem reluctant to do so, even though Chinese officials have repeatedly said that China wants a nonnuclear Korean Peninsula.

The problem is that Washington wants the Chinese to behave like Americans, to apply pressure, to twist arms, to threaten and to cajole. To China, however, this is to act like a hegemon, a charge Beijing levels regularly at the United States. It is not easy for China to emulate such behavior.

Moreover, noninterference in another country’s internal affairs is a sacred tenet for China. For one thing, Beijing is fearful of setting a precedent that might encourage other countries in the future to interfere in China’s domestic affairs.

But it is known that Beijing is unhappy with Pyongyang and, indeed, did not fully approve of the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung’s decision to make his son, Kim Jong Il, his political successor, a move that China thought unsuitable for an ostensibly socialist society. China’s relations with North Korea were further strained when it established diplomatic relations with South Korea a decade ago.

So, although North Korea and China fought side by side against South Korean and American troops 50 years ago, the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing today is far from what it was in earlier decades, even though North Korea, like China, is one of the world’s few remaining communist countries.

The rift between the two countries was obvious last October when North Korea appointed a Chinese-Dutch businessman, Yang Bin, to head the newly established Sinuiju special administrative region on the Chinese border. Before Yang could take up his post, he was arrested by the Chinese authorities for tax evasion and other economic crimes.

Later that month, when Chinese President Jiang Zemin met President George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas, he openly said China was “completely in the dark” as far as North Korea’s nuclear program was concerned, underlining not only the distance between China and North Korea but also Beijing’s disapproval of the latter’s nuclear ambitions.

And when North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in January, China took the unusual step of indicating its displeasure by expressing regret.

The Chinese position on the North Korean nuclear issue has been spelled out by Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue. They are encapsulated in three points. First, China wants to see a peaceful and stable Korean Peninsula. Second, China hopes to see a nuclear-free Peninsula. And third, China believes that “relevant parties” should solve the nuclear issue through dialogue.

Soon, however, Beijing may have to take a much clearer stand. The board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which met Feb. 12 to discuss the North Korean nuclear issue, decided to refer the issue to the United Nations Security Council. China is a member of the board and a permanent member of the Security Council with the right of veto. It is doubtful if Beijing would vote for sanctions against North Korea. On the other hand, it is also unlikely that Beijing will veto such a resolution. The most likely Chinese action in that eventuality is an abstention.

From China’s standpoint, the U.S. and North Korea are both to blame for the breakdown of the Agreed Framework, signed in 1994. While North Korea violated the agreement by setting up a covert nuclear program, the U.S. failed to honor several commitments such as to lift economic sanctions against North Korea and to provide that country with a security guarantee.

The differences between the Chinese and U.S. approach to the North Korean issue is analyzed by David Shambaugh of George Washington University in a perceptive article in the spring issue of The Washington Quarterly.

He argues that while the U.S. is focused on defusing the nuclear problem, China has a more long-term approach aimed at avoiding the collapse of the North Korean regime — an event that would likely have a major adverse impact on Beijing by triggering a flood of refugees into northeastern China.

Instead, he says, China’s priorities are the survival of the North Korean regime, its reform and, in the long run, the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. Thus the defusing of the nuclear problem, while important, assumes a lower priority in the Chinese scheme of things.

Seen in this light, China’s reluctance to use strong-arm tactics against North Korea is more understandable. While Washington may be happy to see the collapse of one of the “axis of evil” countries, China wants to do all it can to prevent this from happening.

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