As North Korea and the United States prepare for a new round of multilateral talks concerning Pyongyang’s nuclear program, both sides are lobbying for the support of China in an effort to gain diplomatic leverage in future talks.
In April, Vice President Dick Cheney and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il visited Beijing within a few days of one another. Both discussed the status of the six-party talks designed to resolve a nearly two-year-old nuclear crisis. China, which provides North Korea with vital supplies of fuel and food, is one of the six parties and the host of the talks.
Soon after the two visits, China announced that a long-stalled “working group” meeting of lower-level officials would take place May 12. The talks, which will be conducted in Beijing, are designed to set the stage for a meeting of higher-level officials before the end of June.
The recent nuclear crisis began in October 2002, when the United States reported that North Korea admitted to pursuing a covert uranium-enrichment program, which can produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. As the crisis escalated, Pyongyang also restarted a plutonium-based nuclear program that had been frozen since 1994 by an agreement with the United States. Since then, the two countries have participated in three rounds of multilateral talks with China, including two rounds of six-party talks. The negotiations have made little apparent progress.
During the most recent round of six-party talks held in February, the parties— which also include South Korea, Japan, and Russia—agreed to meet again by the end of June and to form a “working group” of lower-level officials to prepare for the next round. (See ACT, April 2004.)
The visits by Cheney and Kim reflect the diplomatic importance Beijing has assumed since the crisis began. Pyongyang and Washington have both consulted with Beijing repeatedly, attempting to enlist its support for their positions. In an April 9 interview with Arms Control Today (see page 31), Department of State Director for Policy Planning Mitchell Reiss described China as a “mediator” in the dispute, adding that it has “the most influence on the North. And so to get [it] on board…gives us much more weight in these negotiations.”
In an April 15 speech at Fudan University in Shanghai, Cheney similarly argued that pressure from China and the other participants was important to “persuade” North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program. Cheney also indicated that Pyongyang’s neighbors should demand that it yield to U.S. demands as a condition for improved economic relations with them, suggesting that “the sad state” of its economy will force the regime to comply.
U.S. officials have previously suggested that North Korea’s economic weakness provides other governments with a source of diplomatic leverage, but U.S. intelligence agencies have stated that North Korea shows no signs of imminent collapse. (See ACT, December 2003.)
Warning that a nuclear-armed North Korea could both provoke a regional arms race and supply nuclear weapons technology to terrorists or other governments, Cheney also implied that the United States might lose patience with its diplomatic efforts. “It is important that we make progress in this area. Time is not necessarily on our side,” he said. Undersecretary of State John Bolton underscored Cheney’s point April 27, declaring that “simply continuing to talk…is not progress.”
North Korea itself has said that delays in resolving the dispute will give it more time to build its nuclear arsenal. (See ACT, March 2004.)
Kim met with high-ranking Chinese officials, including President Hu Jintao, during his April 19-21 visit. Washington did not become aware of the meeting until shortly before it began, a State Department official told ACT April 28.
The official Xinhua News Agency reported April 21 that the two leaders agreed to “jointly [push] forward the six-party talks process” and Kim promised North Korea “will continue to take a patient and flexible manner and actively participate in the six-party talks process, and make its own contributions to the progress of the talks.”
Kim noted that North Korea’s negotiating stance “remained unchanged,” according to an April 22 state-run Korean Central News Agency statement.
North Korea has said it will dismantle its nuclear weapons program, but only in a series of steps synchronized with significant U.S. concessions.
Pyongyang’s proposal has not swayed Washington, which says North Korea has failed to meet the U.S. bottom-line demand that any dismantlement agreement be “complete, verifiable, and irreversible.” Washington has said bilateral relations could improve if North Korea carries out such a disarmament program, but claims it will not “reward” Pyongyang for doing so, and refuses to specify how it will respond to such North Korean concessions.
Although Kim’s pledge may lend credence to South Korean press reports that Beijing pressured North Korea to soften its negotiating stance, two other recent Chinese decisions underscore Beijing’s reluctance to go along with a U.S. strategy to isolate Pyongyang. Instead, Beijing appears intent on retaining its role as an “honest broker” between North Korea and the United States.
Xinhua reported April 21 that the two countries agreed to “further develop bilateral economic and trade cooperation.” Additionally, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated April 22 that Beijing decided to increase its aid to Pyongyang.
Moreover, China joined South Korea and Russia during the last round of talks in pledging energy assistance to North Korea “on certain conditions.” Additionally, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official told reporters during the talks that the U.S. goal of North Korean nuclear dismantlement is “not enough” and that North Korea’s “concerns should be addressed.”
Indeed, despite Reiss’ insistence during the April 9 interview that the United States is able to form a “united front” against North Korea with the other four participants, China has consistently pressed for North Korea and the United States to show greater “flexibility” in the talks. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated April 15 that resolving the dispute requires “greater flexibility and pragmatism from the other five parties.”