CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — In the North Korean nuclear crisis, there is a major difference between having leverage and the ability to use it. China has the former, but not the latter. North Korea has both.

On paper, China has the political, military and economic leverage to effect significant change in the North Korean regime’s behavior and the regime itself. The international community saw glimpses of this leverage when Beijing temporarily shut off an oil pipeline to North Korea in early 2003. At present, however, China is significantly constrained by three factors that North Korea is aware of and uses to its advantage:

China’s concern about a North Korean refugee crisis. North Korea is keenly aware of China’s extreme sensitivity to the refugee issue. For Beijing, the prospect of growing numbers of North Koreans roaming around China’s northeastern provinces is a major concern. As these refugees settle in China, the message to those remaining in impoverished North Korea would be one of exodus. Should that message spread throughout the country, a collapse of the Kim Jong Il regime could occur resulting in a massive influx of refugees into China.

Beijing’s desire to avoid the prospect of a full-blown refugee crisis was a major impetus for providing significant aid to North Korea when it almost became a failed state following the Great Famine in the late 1990s. Current estimates indicate that China has been supplying more than 70 percent of North Korea’s fuel and over 40 percent of its food needs.

China’s focus on achieving its internal economic development goals. As tensions were escalating between Washington and Pyongyang following the October 2002 revelation of North Korea’s uranium-weapons program, the Chinese leadership asked its policy analysts how China would be impacted by a sudden collapse of the North Korean regime.

Among the policy papers that came back to the leadership, the ones focusing on the impact on China’s internal economic development received closest attention. Currently, South Korea is China’s largest foreign direct investor in many key industries. Should there be a sudden North Korean state collapse, the South would be forced to redirect significant portions of its investments to the reconstruction of the North.

With the internal Chinese objective of reaching $3,000 per capita GDP by 2020, any disruption to the foreign direct investment inflow critical to job and wealth creation in China would make the attainment of this goal much more difficult. North Korea is keenly aware that this internal Chinese economic development goal is another critical reason for Beijing to preserve North Korean regime stability by providing subsistence-level aid.

The most important factor is China’s desire to uphold its newly earned reputation as an international statesman with the six-party talks process. Originally an effort to bring stability to the Korean Peninsula following the uranium-weapons program dispute in 2002, it is a multilateral creation that China is now trying to resuscitate and manage. While China’s international prestige has grown because of the six-party talks, so too has its exposure to North Korea’s distinct negotiating style. As North Korea is the centerpiece of the talks, Pyongyang knows that its participation is an invaluable instrument with which it can extract further economic and political concessions from China.

For Pyongyang, each of these core Chinese concerns has been a North Korean opportunity to secure more aid. In this sense, North Korea possesses substantial leverage and the ability to use it. North Korea’s two-part statement on Feb. 10 that it has nuclear weapons and will not attend the six-party talks for an indefinite period was effectively its version of applying leverage over China.

Given what is at stake, the Chinese leadership can now neither ignore nor pressure North Korea. Instead it can only bargain down and eventually agree to North Korea’s terms for returning to the six-sided negotiating table in Beijing.

Wang Jiarui, head of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Department, will be briefing the Chinese leadership shortly on North Korea’s shopping list following his recent visit to Pyongyang. That list signifies how China is stuck squarely in the middle of the U.S.-North Korean nuclear feud.

American pressure for a stern Chinese approach to dealing with Pyongyang will be met with the application of North Korean leverage on an increasingly beleaguered Chinese leadership intent on keeping the six-party talks process alive. Cognizant that it will be treated as an outpost by Washington for the next four years, North Korea will be using more of its leverage over the Chinese to weather the neocon storm.

If China is to stay above the deepening diplomatic quagmire, it will have to abandon its ad hoc approach to dealing with the nuclear crisis. This approach currently involves six countries with vastly differing priorities and policies — a combination of divergent interests that will continue to impede the development of a clear path to resolution.

What is urgently needed now is a Chinese-sponsored multilateral road map for negotiating North Korea’s nuclear disarmament. Within this framework, each party’s core priorities can be contextualized and discussed with references to actions and timetables. A multiparty blueprint needs to eventually emerge from the broader road map in order to build nascent trust and confidence where currently none exist.

China possesses the diplomatic tools with which to initiate this process. The question remains whether Beijing will squander its dwindling diplomatic capital on further ad hoc efforts to bring North Korea back to an agenda-deficient table or start a new phase of road map-focused meetings. Without such a road map, the six-party Talks will continue to be a shiny car without an engine. In the end, the talks will go nowhere and North Korea’s leverage over China will grow.

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