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China: The Solution or Problem of The North Korea Nuke Crisis?

Why is China not keen on pressuring North Korea to return to the negotiating table regarding its nukes?

On February 11, North Korea announced for the first time that it possesses nuclear weapons. The claim grabbed headlines, but it was difficult to substantiate. What follows is an article I dashed off over that weekend (it was finished on February 13, according to my Word file), and which was rejected a couple of times by major newspapers the following week:

If I were President Carter, I would have announced yesterday, swiftly following North Korea’s telling the whole world that it now had nuclear weapons, that "I would like to return my Nobel Peace Prize earned for my work to broker a deal in 1994 to exchange more aid for North Korea’s promise to stop its nuclear program." Making such a statement will be important for Mr. Carter unless he found it savory being placed in history next to Mr. Chamberlain, who brokered the Treaty of Munich, as a naïve appeaser. Time is not on your side, Mr. President, as Chamberlain had hardly ever lived in shame because he was shamed to death not long after the eruption of World War II on the heels of his now infamous treaty, but you are still active on so many ambassadorial duties, trotting around the globe in the halo of that Prize. So hurry up!

If I were President Kim Dae-jung, of South Korea, I would follow suit, giving back my 2000 Nobel Prize for my sunshine policy to engage with my brothers and sisters in the North. Apparently, sunshine, smiles, and shaking of hands can’t keep our Northern siblings from making nukes targeting us. In the 1980s, I once almost drowned off the coast of Hong Kong for my pro-democracy activities; now, I am more than willing to plunge myself into water if only that can wash away this indelible blemish on my name.

If I was heading the selection committee for the Nobel Peace Prize, I would go home and ask my son to slap my face several times, to make sure I am sober whenever I make decisions in the future. Then I would go visit an optometrist to make sure I do have some vision. Stupid me, I had always thought "peaceful negotiations," "dialogues," as cherished by our colleagues at the U.N., are an end in themselves. Now, it seems real peace is more complicated than that. Now, to redeem the honor and prestige of the Prize, which could have been befittingly renamed "Nobel Appeasement Prize" for some of the selections we made in the past decade, we will ask Presidents Carter and Kim to relinquish their rights to the name and financial benefits of the prize. We, however, will ask President Kim Jong-II, of North Korea, to keep the prize and money that he shared with President Kim of South Koreabecause we really don’t know he would return them if we ever asked or, if he does concur, as President Carter will testify this time, we are not sure whether he will ever keep his promise.
If I were that professor from Harvard’s Kennedy School, I would not make that appearance on PBS repeating all that has been repeated thousands of times about China and North Korea, that China is in fear of a refugee problem in case of a showdown in the peninsula and thus would willingly broker a rapprochement between the U.S. and North Korea. You know what, although my title does accord a lot of weight to what I said, I really don’t know much about what I am saying as far as those far-away countries whose languages are beyond my ken are concerned. Our analyses are all based on the assumption that the Chinese government would act like its U.S. counterpart, which we are truly familiar with, but whether that is really what will unfold is really none of our business. You know, we are eminent academics, but we live in our own world, or "Ivory Tower" as someone would call it. And sometimes, I really don’t understand why people keep coming to us for help although our analyses have proven to be wrong one after another. Here, I’d like to avail myself of the opportunity to make it clear that our strengthas well as major source of incomelies in our ability to write books and articles to keep the event in perspective afterward, but not in advance.

Since I am only me, not those dignitaries, I apparently don’t have much to worry about any serious fallout of my words or thoughts. You may call me a Monday morning quarterback, but my friends could be my witnesses that I did yell out many times in front of the TV showing a smiling Carter in North Korea ten years ago, "Stupid, it only takes a ten-year-old Chinese kiddo to understand this is nothing but Yu2 Hu3 Mo2 Pi2 (a Chinese proverb meaning "negotiating with a tiger for the price of his skin)." Okay, if this gives me a little bit credibilitybut I would understand if it is still not enough to put me on PBSlet me tell you this: All that theorizing about China having incentives to help the West in curbing the North is nothing but wishful thinking. China needs Kim and the North to make trouble for the U.S. so that it always has the trump card in dealing with the U.S., and the U.S. is always distracted when China and the U.S. don’t see eye to eye on something. The theory that China would worry about that hypothetical huge influx of refugees crossing the Yalu simply doesn’t hold water, either. Remember how they treated their own people at Tiananmen in 1989 and Falun Gong in 1999? There are already credible reports of hundreds of thousands of troops stationed along the Yalu, and when the first batch of North Koreans tries to escape their country in a crisis, such as the fall of the Kim family dynasty, the same machine guns that were releasing lethal fires upon Chinese in 1989 will fire again. And when that happens, do you think there will be a second batch coming? Just check how China treats those North Koreans being smuggled into China, and you will understand what I am saying here. Yes, you are right that if China ever dares to do that it will be put under international sanctions, but weren’t there international sanctions too in the wake of the 1989 massacre? And to Beijing’s amusement, those sanctions have only become the catalyst for the billions of dollars being poured into China every year.
I don’t know what others might think, but as long as Kim Jong-II keeps his Nobel Peace Prize, and people like Falun Gong members who, by their sheer numbers could have made China a much more messy place if not for their embrace of peace and endurance of deadly persecution against them, are not getting the Prize, I am not sure whether it is an honor or disgrace to get such an award. Besides, I happen not to be a big fan of Kofi Annan, the most recent Nobel Appeasement laureate, either.

.  .  .

I regret that the original title of that article was a sarcastic "Nobel Appeasement Prize?"—which misdirects the attention to the negligible, petty, trifling vanity of the Nobel Prize, relative to what is at stake for the whole world. Even worse, at that time I was so obfuscated by strong feelings that I forgot the editors of those media outlets to whom I sent the article are mostly graduates of Harvard’s Kennedy School. Since that time, however, there have been several developments that suggest more attention might be needed to the issues I raised. So much so that we started hearing voices of concern from think tanks and academics about China’s role in the six-party talk.

Meanwhile, I still can’t understand why so many people still believe China would have big problems with a nuclear North Korea due to its geographical proximity—isn’t Pakistan, a recipient of China’s assistance in building its nuke bomb, China’s neighbor too? I don’t understand all those talks about the limited leverage China has over North Korea, either—Isn’t that true there is a North Korea on the map today only because of China’s involvement in the Korea War, and now the North doesn’t stand any chance of survival if China simply turns off its faucet? From this perspective, China’s declared neutral position between the U.S. and the North clearly shows its favored party, not to mention its manifest intention of vetoing any U.N. move against the North if it were ever proposed.

Indeed, if North Korea is a natural buffer that dilutes the pressure of democratization and a trump card in its deck against the United States in any game of diplomacy, then it would be in China’s best interest to see the continuation of a communist North Korea. Now the question that has to be discussed at the beginning of every discourse of this issue is: Will China want it to happen or not?

John Li is a New-York-based freelance writer on China and Sino-U.S. relations.