China stands by North Korea despite noticeable aggravations

Friday, January 3, 2003

BEIJING -- They've been as close as "lips and teeth," the saying goes, staunch comrades in battle and communist allies during decades of Cold War standoff.

With ties sealed in blood, China remains North Korea's most important ally and a crucial aid provider. That gives Beijing an important role and unique leverage as Pyongyang faces worldwide condemnation for restarting its nuclear program.

While China says it wants a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, it has not visibly exerted its substantial influence on Pyongyang. Instead, it seems to be standing by its ally, guided by historical ties and fears of being drawn into the chaos that could unfold if the North Korean regime collapses or the country goes to war with its southern neighbor.

"Despite all the problems North Korea poses for China, Beijing appears unwilling to risk destabilizing North Korea," said Charles K. Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Research at New York's Columbia University.

China's closeness to North Korea has made it the target of intense lobbying from other nations uneasy over the latest moves by Kim Jong Il's dictatorial regime. North Korea alarmed the world last month when it decided to reactivate its plutonium-based nuclear program; last week, it expelled U.N. nuclear inspectors and signaled it may quit a global nuclear arms-control treaty.

U.S. officials have urged Beijing to pressure North Korea. On Thursday, South Korea sent a deputy foreign minister to Beijing for talks about North Korea, and Seoul said the two sides agreed to cooperate to "prevent the situation from further aggravating."

American and South Korean diplomats say Beijing has listened to their concerns but hasn't promised to intervene with Pyongyang. If China is exerting influence on North Korea, it isn't letting on.

Making direct demands on North Korea is "not China's style," said Chu Shulong, director of the Institute of Strategic Studies at Beijing's Tsinghua University. However, he said China has made its concerns clear to the North -- a suggestion that Beijing is exerting subtle pressure on Pyongyang.

At the United Nations, diplomats said Beijing wanted to deal privately with the situation through diplomatic channels rather than bringing it to the Security Council where China could wind up publicly defending Pyongyang.

It is a difficult role for China to play. Beijing must balance its ideological and traditional ties to Pyongyang with its keen desire for regional stability and its hunger to be seen as an important player on the world stage, especially by Washington.

North Korea's founder and its current leader's father, Kim Il Sung, spent much of his youth in China and was once a member of China's Communist Party. China fought on North Korea's side during the 1950-53 Korean War, sacrificing an estimated 1 million Chinese soldiers in the fight against South Korea and the United States.

Ties remained strong even after China established diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992. At a North Korean embassy reception that year, a Chinese general, Fu Quanyou, again invoked the Korean War-era "lips and teeth" analogy, setting the tone for the current cordial relationship.

"There is a special, insular relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang that seems to be immune to any outside influences," a Western diplomat in China said on condition of anonymity.

China's leverage is considerable. It provides about 220,000 tons of grain a year to the famine-plagued country, according to the United Nations. Chinese fuel supplies help keep the remnants of North Korean industry operating, and China is the North's biggest trading partner, though trade volumes are paltry.

China receives some raw materials from North Korea and traders near the border get some business from North Koreans, but it's not considered very lucrative.

China "could exert a great deal of pressure on North Korea if it wanted to," Armstrong said.

Kim Jong Il visited China twice in recent years, significant because he rarely leaves his country. The trips led some to wonder if North Korea was considering Chinese-style economic reforms, but there has been little evidence of serious change.

Withdrawing aid to force changes is considered too risky. Already, hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees are believed to have fled across the border seeking food and work in China. Almost 200 have entered foreign diplomatic missions and schools in China seeking asylum in the past year, creating diplomatic headaches for China.

Any North Korean collapse would risk unleashing a conflict that could draw in China or -- equally worrisome to Beijing -- plant a U.S.-allied unified Korean state on its border. South Korea currently hosts 37,000 U.S. troops.

Some experts say that China, rather than using aid as leverage, may even increase its assistance to forestall a North Korean meltdown.

The complexities of China's relationship with North Korea make the "lips and teeth" analogy even more apt, since it implies co-dependence as much as intimacy.

"When the lips are gone," the second half of that couplet says, "the teeth feel cold."

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