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China Using Diplomacy to Protect Its Interests in Korean Nuclear Dispute - 2004-10-01

China, long an ally of neighboring North Korea, has been a major diplomatic force in the effort to try to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear-weapons programs. The Korean nuclear dispute highlights China's interest in exerting influence in global diplomacy.

As nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula increased early last year, China's diplomats began an all-out effort to bring North Korea and the United States together to talk.

It was not easy. The North Koreans insisted they would discuss the dispute over its nuclear weapon programs only with the United States. Washington, however, would not take part unless Asian nations were involved.

China's solution: persuade the two countries to meet with its diplomats in Beijing. That first trilateral meeting in April 2003 led to a series of six-nation talks on the issue. Japan, South Korea, and Russia have joined North Korea, the United States, and China at three rounds of talks in the past year.

Stephen Linton heads the Eugene Bell Foundation, a private U.S. charity aiding North Korea. He says Washington has other problems to focus on, such as rebuilding Iraq, and welcomes Beijing's efforts on the North Korea issue. "The United States has essentially ceded the North Korean issue to China and China is doing what it can to resolve the issue in a way that is perhaps reluctantly satisfactory to the United States, but is also in its [China's] own interests," he says.

The dispute began two-years ago, when the United States said Pyongyang had admitted having a secret nuclear-weapons program, in violation of several international accords. Since then, Washington's aim has been to shut down all of the North's nuclear facilities, as part of its worldwide campaign to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Many experts join Mr. Linton in saying China is primarily looking after its own concerns as it tries to end the nuclear dispute.

Among those concerns is the prospect that unless the issue is resolved and North Korea receives more international aid, its fragile economy could collapse. Hundreds of thousands more refugees then might flood across the border into China, to join those already thought to be there illegally.

Robert Einhorn is an expert on efforts to end North Korea's nuclear programs at the independent Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He says China is pushing Pyongyang on its economic policies, as well as its weapons programs. "I think they are concerned with the prospect of instability there, and they are trying to moderate, if they can, North Korean behavior and encourage the North Koreans to adopt Chinese-type economic reforms," he says.

China's role in resolving the North Korea crisis also gives Beijing greater regional clout, and counters the long U.S. military and political ties in Asia.

Victor Cha is a professor of international relations at Georgetown University in Washington, who specializes on North Korean issues. "You know, we should not be under any illusions that China is in this for the good of mankind," he says. "They clearly want to want to capitalize on this issue to the extent that it enhances their own influence in the region."

Many analysts suspect Beijing's communist leadership also worries about an abrupt collapse of the North Korean regime, leading to political instability. And it is concerned that Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions could lead the United States to launch a pre-emptive military strike, unleashing a second Korean War.

Mr. Linton, at the Eugene Bell Foundation, says "clearly China is not interested in a collapse in North Korea, they are not interested in an Iraq-type invasion, obviously. I think their interests are clearly to stabilize the situation. I do not think they want reunification, I do not think they want collapse, I do not think they want invasion."

Unification of the two Koreas, several analysts noted, is likely to mean Seoul's democratic government would run the peninsula. That would put a long-time U.S. ally on China's border - perhaps with U.S. troops still based there. It took China nearly two centuries to end the colonial encroachment of Western powers and Japan. Analysts say it would not be happy to have a Western power again on its doorstep.