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Analysts: China Has Own Interests Concerning N. Korea

Experts say the United States and China do not always have the same interests when it comes to dealing with North Korea. This issue was discussed recently at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative non-profit public-policy organization.

When dealing with North Korea, the road to Pyongyang almost always leads through Beijing.

China's prominence is apparent as it hosts the six-party talks aimed at resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis. The other four countries involved are the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

Experts at a recent Heritage Foundation discussion examined the issue of China's role in resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis. Bonnie Glaser, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said U.S. and Chinese interests differ on a crucial issue - whether or not North Korea should even have nuclear weapons. Washington wants Pyongyang to completely abandon its nuclear weapons programs.

"From the Chinese perspective and their history, the way they think about nuclear weapons is, they have a great deterrent value," she said. "They [China] believe that North Korea wants to obtain these weapons, having looked at Iraq, having drawn the lesson that, 'Boy, if Iraq had had nukes, the U.S. probably would not have attacked.'"

She says one area where U.S. and Chinese officials have similar concerns is over the possibility of North Korean nuclear proliferation.

"If there is a situation in which the [North Korean] society in some way devolves into chaos, whether or not those facilities and those nuclear weapons can remain secure, I think, is a concern that China has," she said. "It is a concern that Americans share. And, in that circumstance, the possibility that nuclear weapons could get into the hands of terrorists would then, I think, be a concern of China's."

Glaser says this is why she believes China ultimately fears chaos on the Korean peninsula more than it fears North Korea having nuclear weapons.

"I think it is very important for China, but it is not at the top of China's list, and that is achieving denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," she said. "Removing nuclear weapons from the peninsula, for China, cannot come at the expense of maintaining stability."

The Heritage Foundation's John Tkacik goes one step further, saying he believes the Chinese military, the PLA, actually opposes the eventual reunification of North and South Korea.

"I do think that it is a strategic imperative among the PLA, at least, that there must be a divided Korean peninsula, frankly because the last thing the Chinese want is an economically advanced, militarily powerful, nuclear armed nation of 70, or 80 million people, right on their border, with irredentist [historical] claims to 18,000 square miles (29,000 square kilometers) of Chinese territory," he said.

The third expert on the Heritage panel was Gordon Chang, who authored a new book titled Nuclear Shakedown: North Korea Takes on the World. He says he believes China is interested in drawing out the six-party talks.

"China may be promoting a dialogue, but it is not promoting a solution," he said.

He says in order to push China toward what he described as a more "constructive" role in resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis, the American government and people should be ready to apply commercial pressure.

"The stability of the modern Chinese state depends on prosperity, and that prosperity, in large measure, depends upon access to American capital and markets," he said. "We should deny both, if that should prove necessary."

Chang acknowledged that some of the measures could be painful for the United States.

"Now, someone's going to say, 'Well, if we do any of these things, we are going to hurt ourselves.' Yes, that is true," he continued. "We certainly are not going to have cheap products on the shelves of our Wal-Marts, and the markets for our Treasury obligations are not going to be as deep. We may even have to endure years of deep recession, as our economy adjusts."

Concerns over China are also being expressed on Capitol Hill. Senator Hillary Clinton made this comment at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

"I worry that the six-party talks have really devolved into the Chinese talks, and the Chinese have their own agenda," she said.

The six-party talks started in 2003. The latest round ended in November.

In Beijing on Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said the timetable is not yet set for the next round because of what he called a "lack of mutual confidence" between the United States and North Korea.