China gets involved in North Korea nuclear talks

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

BEIJING -- They said it over and over again to North Korea and the United States: This problem is yours to solve. But now, after a generation of diplomacy based on non-intervention, China is finally, openly getting involved.

Bound to North Korea by shared communist heritage and shed blood, but pushed by 25 years of evolution toward capitalism and internationalism, the Chinese government finds itself in an unfamiliar position this week: mediator.

When representatives of six countries begin talks in Beijing on Wednesday to defuse a nuclear dispute between Washington and Pyongyang, in the middle will sit China, political partner of one and economic ally of the other, entering a new phase in its once-rigid foreign policy.

"China's role in the six-party talks is far beyond simply being a coordinator," said Zhao Gancheng, a professor at the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Studies.

"China has its own interests in this issue -- regional stability and a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula," Zhao said in an interview. "The Chinese government's goals have not changed. But it has certainly made some adjustments in the way it wants to achieve those goals."

For months, China's leadership dodged the dispute between the United States and North Korea, saying it was up to them to solve. But gradually, pressured by Washington and probably by Pyongyang as well, Beijing has come around and agreed to host the talks, which South Korea, Japan and Russia will also attend.

No one else could host the meeting, really. North Korea has too much animus with South Korea and Japan, and Beijing, something of a communist big brother to Pyongyang over the years, is the obvious choice -- the most friendly terrain available in the region.

And while China can insist that it's merely providing office space, its high-profile participation seems a resounding statement that it plans to be involved in charting the political course of the region it dominates.

Even as it puts on a positive face, though, China is warning the United States not to be heavyhanded in dealing with North Korea -- a common apprehension by Beijing, which always watches closely when the American government is involved in East Asian affairs.

Earlier this month, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper People's Daily described North Korea's agreement to hold multilateral instead of bilateral talks as a "huge concession" and denounced what it called the Pentagon's "saber-rattling" on the issue.

"Washington's hard-line attitude towards the DPRK has done nothing but escalate tensions," People's Daily said, using the abbreviation for North Korea's full name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "The United States should give up its superpower mentality and treat the DPRK as an equal sovereign state at the negotiating table."

The United States was optimistic Monday.

"We have worked for a long time to have these multilateral talks," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly said upon arriving in Beijing. "We're looking forward to a direct and fair exchange of views."

North Korea's years of xenophobia and suspicions that it is selling missile technology have left it isolated in a world of increasing connectedness -- and fueled President Bush's charge that it is part of an "axis of evil."

Even China has, ideologically and culturally, moved away from the country its troops joined to fight the 1950-53 Korean War against U.S. and South Korean armies.

The images that emerge from the North these days -- scripted rallies brimming with socialist-realism-style posters and marchers with rouge on their faces -- match the Cultural Revolution-era China of the 1960s and early 1970s far more than today's entrepreneurial "socialist market economy."

That political and economic disconnect with its one major ally means the North is an unpredictable wild card not only for the world, but to some extent for China as well.

"North Korea could try to drag China into a confrontation with the United States," said Steve Tsang, director of the Asian Studies Center of St. Antony's College at Oxford University. "China has almost as much to lose as South Korea and the United States if the North Korea situation should turn really nasty."

Still, for the Chinese government, always seeking prestige and respect on the world stage, being the venue for the talks goes over well not only internationally, but at home.

"They're as much playing to a domestic audience as an international audience. If you're statesman-like, that reinforces the message of a good group of people doing a good job," said David S.G. Goodman, director of the Institute for International Studies at the University of Technology-Sydney in Australia.

His conclusion: China's hosting of the six-nation summit will assist it immensely -- in image and in substance. Simply pushing the process along helps the Beijing government defuse tensions that could make its life difficult and even dangerous.

In the best case, Goodman says, the talks would chart the path to a solution. But ultimately, "They just have to not end in war."

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