China's relations in the Asia-Pacific: North Korea
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

China's relations in the Asia-Pacific: North Korea


A Chinese proverb holds that one shouldn’t attempt to write literature before Confucius. Given China’s unfortunate history with opium, it might seem equally presumptuous to explain concepts associated with treating narcotics addiction to Chinese officials. Still, it’s essential that Chinese officials understand the very real change in US views embodied in the use of the word ‘enabling’ to describe recent Chinese policy toward North Korea.

This means more than to simply ‘make possible.’ In the case of drug addicts, ‘enabling’ behaviours are those that shield the drug user from the full consequences of his or her addiction and thus inhibit a change in behaviour. A caring parent motivated by love may continue to provide housing, money and transportation to a wayward child. China’s decision to ignore the evidence on the sinking of the Cheonan, to host Kim Jong-il not once but twice in the wake of that tragedy, and more recently to not only refuse to call North Korea to task for shelling civilians, but to actually block action by the UN Security Council to condemn disturbing developments in North Korea’s nuclear programme, may have been motivated by a concern for internal stability in North Korea. In both cases, however, the effect is equally counterproductive.

For the better part of a decade, cooperation on responding to the challenge posed by North Korea and its nuclear programme has been a relative highlight in US-China relations. However, following China’s failure to hold North Korea to account after the sinking of the Cheonan early last year, US officials began to accuse China of wilfully ignoring North Korean behaviour.

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This rhetoric changed dramatically after China once again failed to respond to, and actively blocked, the international community’s response to a horrific November during which North Korea announced it was constructing a light water nuclear reaction, revealed a modern uranium enrichment facility (both in clear violation of standing UN Security Council sanctions resolutions and North Korea’s own commitments under the September 19, 2005 agreement of the Six-Party Talks) and most egregiously shelled a South Korean island killing civilians in what can only be described as an act of war.

As a result, US officials have now begun to openly and in private accuse China of ‘enabling’ North Korean behaviour.

In early December, Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made clear his view that the ‘reckless behaviour of the North Korean regime’ was ‘enabled by their friends in China.’  Most recently, in setting the stage for last month’s summit between Barack Obama and Hu Jintao, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a major address on US-China ties including a significant portion on North Korea wherein she made clear the consequences of China’s current approach and the correlation between that approach and recent provocations: ‘We fear and have discussed this in depth with our Chinese friends, that failure to respond clearly to the sinking of a South Korean military vessel might embolden North Korea to continue on a dangerous course. The attack on Yeonpyeong Island that took the lives of civilians soon followed.’

China and the United States continue to have very real shared interests and concerns on the Korean Peninsula. Last month’s US-China summit called for continued cooperation. However, for the sake of such cooperation, Chinese leaders need to realize that their current approach is counterproductive, threatening not only US-China cooperation, but the very stability of the Korean Peninsula and the region. What’s required isn’t for China to abandon its erstwhile ally, but simply to stop shielding North Korea from the consequences of its actions. If it can’t do that, in the eyes of many in Washington, China will be increasingly be viewed as no longer part of the solution, but part of the problem.

L. Gordon Flake is executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation.

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