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Peking Ducks

From the August 4 / August 11, 2003 issue: When it comes to North Korea, China is no help at all.

Aug 4, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 45 • By JOHN J. TKACIK JR.
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"THE CHINESE have been very helpful in this North Korea problem," a senior administration official assured me earlier this week. Then he paused and thought for a minute. "Well . . . strike 'very,'" he hedged.

The steady stream of Chinese vice foreign ministers passing through Washington over the past three weeks said all the right things in private. China is "adamantly opposed" to the nuclearization of the Korean peninsula, they declared. The problem, said one administration official, is that "they haven't done anything."

The administration is torn between trying to keep the Chinese "in the process" by pushing Beijing to host talks with Pyongyang, and venting frustration with Beijing for basically taking Pyongyang's side in the talks. As the Americans know, Chinese envoys warn Pyongyang that "those Americans are just crazy enough to do something drastic"--a message some in Washington consider helpful.

The Chinese, however, have resisted any appearance of disloyalty to their North Korean comrades. On July 18, Chinese vice foreign minister Dai Bingguo spent the entire day closeted with Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. He spent more than two and a half hours with Powell convincing the American side not to push for multilateral talks with the North Koreans, especially if they include the Japanese.

This is understandable. The Chinese are not keen on being outvoted in any five-power talks, and have lobbied heavily to keep Washington's contacts with Pyongyang strictly within Beijing's ambit. Last week, the Chinese declared to the South Koreans that they agree with North Korea's stance: "North Korea considers it illogical to see Japan, which has invaded the Korean peninsula and colonized it, getting involved in the Korean peninsula affairs." In Washington, however, neither Dai nor Chinese vice foreign minister Wang Yi tried to rule out Japanese participation; each promised "to relay your position to Beijing."

To Powell's credit, he remained unpersuaded by Dai's repeated suggestions to just move to the "next step"--another United States-China-North Korea session without preconditions. "The American position remains: Any three-party session must be followed immediately--within 24 hours--by a five-party session," one State Department official says.

An example of how desperate the Chinese are to avoid five-power talks came in early July. Wang arrived in Washington for the first hand-wringing session on North Korea. It just so happened that Wang's counterparts, South Korean deputy foreign minister Lee Soo-Hyuck and Mitoji Yabunaka, director general of the Japanese foreign ministry's Asian office, were in town for similar talks with Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly. Kelly invited all four to a confidential dinner. Vice Minister Wang refused. "He didn't just say no," said one administration source, "he said 'hell no.'" News of such a meeting would surely leak, Wang reasoned, and China would seem to be conspiring against Pyongyang.

Instead, Beijing is signaling to Washington that it intends to remain firmly on Pyongyang's side. While two Chinese vice ministers shuttled between Washington, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Moscow, wringing their hands and urging that the United States not give up on a peaceful settlement of the North Korean crisis, China's political leaders had only nice things to say about China-North Korea ties.

On July 11, the 42nd anniversary of the Sino-Korean alliance, a vice chair of China's parliament declared that the governments of China and the Korean People's Democratic Republic (DPRK) have "pushed ahead with their cause of socialist construction" and "made important contributions to defending the peace and stability of China and Korea and, furthermore, the rest of the world, closely cooperating with each other in the international arena." Yikes!

After that, the Chinese ambassador in Pyongyang gushed that "the party, the army, and the people of the DPRK single-heartedly rallied around leader Kim Jong Il and are making a dynamic advance despite all difficulties." To ease those "difficulties," the Chinese government "donated" 10,000 tons of diesel oil to the DPRK--hardly the action of a country that wanted to rein in North Korea's reckless nuclear ambitions.