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Analysts Say China's Role in Korean Nuclear Talks Motivated by Self-interest - 2003-05-01

China, which hosted the recent meeting on North Korea's nuclear-weapons program, is increasingly acting as a diplomatic mediator between the United States and North Korea. Analysts say Beijing is playing an active role because it has a strong interest in preventing the stalemate from escalating and causing insecurity inside China.

The United States has praised China for its help in getting North Korea to sit down at talks last month in Beijing. White House spokesman Ari Fleisher told reporters China played a significant role.

"During these talks we made clear to the North Koreans our policy, which is the policy of our allies in the region; that North Korea must verifiably and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear weapons program," he said. "This is the goal of our allies. This is the stated policy of China, which played a very productive role in these talks and a very helpful role through the active participation of the Chinese government."

This was not the first time China mediated talks between Pyongyang and Washington. In the 1990s, China hosted the two sides at talks on North Korean missile proliferation at the Chinese embassy in Berlin.

The director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Elizabeth Economy, says China was not enthusiastic about taking a lead role in the North Korea nuclear issue when the crisis began last October. But she says the U.S. invasion of Iraq changed that.

"We did not see China sort of leaping to the foreground to take the initiative in setting up these negotiations four or five months ago. It really was I think in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq that China thought, 'Okay, North Korea could well be on the United States' list, and that is to be avoided at all costs.'

Ms. Economy says China is in a unique position to play a powerful role in the North Korea nuclear dispute. "China's role is critical because it signals to the North Koreans primarily that they are taking seriously the threat that North Korea is posing to the entire region with its alleged development of nuclear weapons," she said. "China is the single largest provider of energy assistance and one of the largest providers of food aid to North Korea, and it is the one country that really has any leverage at all, I think, in this situation with North Korea."

China apparently used its leverage over North Korea by temporarily stopping the flow of oil to the North for a few days in February, but Chinese officials say their leverage is limited.

And Beijing has pressed Washington to continue using a diplomatic approach with North Korea, arguing that economic sanctions or military action would cause instability and massive refugee flows into China.

Chinese foreign policy specialist Lyman Miller says China is trying to navigate a middle ground that keeps nuclear weapons out of Korea, but does not lead to instability.

"I think they see themselves caught in between a situation in which pursuit of a military option by the United States, regime change, or something more limited than that, would have terrible consequences for security in the region," he said. "On the other hand, it does not want to see a nuclearized North Korea and the rest of Northeast Asia. And so, its problem, dilemma is to try to find some route back to stability in between those two alternatives."

Mr. Miller, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California, says China is worried that if North Korea builds a nuclear arsenal, then South Korea and Japan would follow suit, creating what he calls a nightmare security problem for China.

Some analysts say China may have felt almost betrayed when North Korea told the U.S. delegation in Beijing that Pyongyang has nuclear weapons.

Elizabeth Economy thinks that is not the case, because Chinese intelligence probably already knew about some aspects of the North's nuclear program. She says China put a good face on the first round of talks because it has a real interest in seeing the negotiations go forward.

Not only do China and the United States share a desire for a nuclear free Korea, but Ms. Economy says, "China has the added concern, that is not shared by the United States, of millions of North Korean refugees potentially fleeing over the border into China. So, I think that it is only in China's interest at this point to sit down at the table and to get both sides talking."

Lyman Miller says Japan and South Korea are comfortable with China playing a facilitating role in the North Korean nuclear issue in the early stages. But he says there is a limit to that.

"I would expect at some point the South Koreans and the Japanese will want their voices represented at the table so that whatever deal is arrived at, hopefully one can be, Beijing does not advance its own influence on the Korean peninsula at the expense of the others," he said.

Elizabeth Economy says the countries of East Asia used to fear the rising influence of China, but in recent years China has played a positive role in many regional and international issues. She says the negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program fit into that positive pattern and have served to ease the concerns among China's neighbors.