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N. Korea status quo works for China

SINGAPORE -- Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last month, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie stressed that Beijing was working hard to manage the nuclear threat from North Korea.

China was “highly concerned” about the issue and opposed North Korea's development of nuclear weapons. Moreover, China had, in its interactions with North Korea, done “much more than you can imagine,” he told delegates at the security summit.

There is some truth to what Liang said. China has played a leading role in the six-party talks to dismantle North Korea's nuclear arsenal. Following Pyongyang's first-ever nuclear test in 2006, Beijing adopted U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, which banned transfers of military material to the reclusive country.

Many Western officials and commentators agree that Beijing plays a critical role. Admiral Mike Mullen, America's top general, has said Beijing could influence Pyongyang the most. Last week, The Economist's Banyan column on Asian affairs argued that there are “more reasons than usual” to believe that China will rein in its long-time ally.

The problem, however, is that while there is the appearance of movement, there is no real change or improvement in China's position vis-a-vis North Korea. Essentially, China is maintaining the status quo on the North Korean issue. It will countenance a nuclear-armed North Korea, with the attendant risks of an escalation in tensions with the United States-South Korea alliance in future hostilities. Such an unpalatable scenario is still better than a situation where North Korea collapses under pressure from China and other parties, leading to a nuclear-free peninsula under South Korean control and allied to the U.S.

In other words, China will push North Korea to behave, but not too hard.

On the one hand, China has told North Korea not to “take the risk,” as Liang has said. Beijing, as some analysts understand it, will seek to prevent Pyongyang from carrying out more provocations, such as missile or nuclear tests.

In May, China pressured North Korea to return to the six-party talks. Even though Beijing knows that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il will never accept complete denuclearization, a multilateral forum has value if “no better alternative can be found,” argues You Ji, a China-watcher at the University of New South Wales.

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