The Chinese Puzzle

The most important VIP to visit Beijing last week arrived in a military uniform without fanfare or journalists in tow. Less than 48 hours before critical negotiations between the United States, North Korea and China got underway, the No. 2 man in Pyongyang's communist hierarchy, Vice Marshall Cho Myong Rok, met quietly with Chinese President Hu Jintao to ask for military assurances should the United States attack his country. Although details of their encounter remain sketchy, Cho clearly came away with less than he wanted. Publicly, Hu merely reiterated Beijing's desire that the Korean Peninsula remain "non-nuclear" but offered no overt assistance. His obvious intention: to warn "Great Leader" Kim Jong Il not to declare North Korea a nuclear power.

Two days later Kim did just that. North Korea's delegate to three-way talks in the Chinese capital, a mid-level diplomat --named Ri Gun, told Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly over a meal that his country had developed atom bombs, which it may test, use in battle or even export. China, flummoxed by Pyongyang's bad table manners, encouraged both sides to keep talking. But the American delegation packed up and left a day early on the ground that there was nothing more to say.

North Korea may now be alone as never before. By springing its nuclear program during talks China hosted, it has sucker-punched its last major ally in the world. Pyongyang's erratic behavior is also likely to undermine moderates in other capitals. The North's diplomatic bombshell has embarrassed South Korea's new president, Roh Moo Hyun, who has staked his political career on bridging the inter-Korean divide through dialogue. Japanese officials are beginning to discuss bolstering their defenses in ways heretofore unthinkable. And Washington's hawks--many of whom favor a military solution to the crisis--are emboldened by the North's renewed belligerence. But whether the Bush administration's hard-liners are able to raise the pressure on Pyongyang may ultimately be decided by China's disposition toward its communist neighbor. "China has leverage it can use with North Korea," says Lee Chung Hoon, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University. "It may now be in China's interest to be tough on them."

What Washington ultimately asks of Beijing will depend on the outcome of the internal war between the administration's own hawks and doves. The latest squabbling began with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's secretive planning for last week's talks. For more than a month, after his brief trip to China in February, Powell worked to stage a three-way session with the mercurial North Koreans and the Chinese. Powell toiled outside the usual National Security Council meetings to deal directly with the White House. Key conservatives, who oppose negotiating with the North, were clueless until it was too late and President Bush had already agreed to the talks. Many hawks, including Pentagon officials close to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, only heard about the talks from mid-level Japanese officials, NEWSWEEK has learned.

Not to be outdone, Rumsfeld struck back with two classified memos outlining the Pentagon's more aggressive policy prescriptions. The recommendations include bleeding Kim's regime dry by closing down his illicit trade in drugs and arms, through maritime interdiction and extra pressure on international clients such as Yemen. At their heart the Rummygrams argue for an alliance with China to force the collapse of the North Korean regime. But the administration's diplomats put little stock in the Pentagon's plans. "What are they smoking?" asked one exasperated State Department official. "Which alternative universe do they inhabit? This is total fantasy."

Or is it? Last week in Beijing, Chinese officials witnessed for themselves how uncontrollable their onetime allies can be. The North Koreans' bad behavior may be the very thing that prompts Beijing to take a sterner approach. The conventional wisdom still holds that China would oppose military action against the regime it once sacrificed several million soldiers to defend. But even the Bush administration's hawks admit they are not ready for war any time soon, and certainly not in a U.S. presidential-election year. More important, Rumsfeld and his Pentagon colleagues may find that Beijing is amenable to using non-military means to get the North to stand down. And Chinese assistance could be the linchpin for orchestrating a more unified international front against Pyongyang.

Some American officials are now hopeful that China may no longer block U.N. sanctions against North Korea if a new resolution is brought to the Security Council. And the Pentagon has no doubt taken note of China's greater willingness to use its leverage in recent months. In late February, China, which supplies the bulk of oil and grain imports to the North, shut an oil pipeline for three days to signal its displeasure with the North's warlike rhetoric. "Communist countries have ways of doing things like this," says Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at People's University in Beijing. "You only have to do a small thing and the other side gets the message."

For Beijing, the damage Pyongyang is doing to its strategic backyard is probably the most compelling reason to ratchet up the pressure. "If this goes badly," says David Shambaugh, a professor of Chinese politics at George Washington University, "not only do they get a nuclear North Korea, but possibly a nuclear Japan, South Korea and Taiwan." Chinese officials are keenly aware that Japanese policymakers have begun to shed their "nuclear allergy" in the months since Pyongyang acknowledged its uranium-based weapons program. Although personally opposed to a nuclear option, Diet member Ichita Yamamoto says, "We should start by seriously considering a capacity to attack missile bases in North Korea."

It's talk like that that is sure to keep Beijing on edge. Chairman Mao once described the relationship between China and North Korea as being "as close as lips and teeth." Today, says North Korea expert Alexandre Mansourov, "bleeding lips and broken teeth" is closer to the truth.

The Chinese Puzzle | News