China Power

Time for N. Korea Rebuke

Rebuking North Korea over the sinking of the Cheonan doesn’t have to lead to its collapse.

What exactly would North Korea have to do to receive a public rebuke from China? This is the question that springs to mind after Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo shied away from backing a call by Japan and South Korea to condemn Pyongyang over the March sinking of the South Korea vessel Cheonan.

The leaders of the three countries have just concluded a two-day summit that had originally been arranged to focus on trade issues, but unsurprisingly attention turned to whether Security Council veto-wielding China would join Japanese and South Korean efforts to have North Korea condemned or sanctioned by the UN. Instead, Wen reportedly stated that the ‘urgent task for the moment is to properly handle the serious impact caused by the Cheonan incident, gradually defuse tensions over it, and avoid possible conflicts.’

This is fine as far as it goes, but deliberately sinking another country’s vessel is an outrageous provocation and South Korea’s patience deserves at least a unified front of condemnation. No doubt in private, China has been less than amused with its neighbour. But with the evidence in, Beijing will eventually have to make a choice–join in the condemnation or effectively let North Korea get away with it. No right minded person would want conflict on the Korean Peninsula, but the choice available isn’t, or doesn’t have to be, no rebuke or war.

Heritage Foundation China watcher Dean Cheng outlined Friday for DoD Buzz the downsides to China pushing North Korea over the brink, not least the likely flood of refugees that would occur in the event of North Korea’s collapse. Cheng is right to note that for Beijing such downsides weigh more heavily than the upsides (halting the Pyongyang’s progress down the nuclear path clearly is in the interests of the US, South Korea and Japan, but the benefits to China are less obvious).

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But a clear statement of condemnation by Beijing such as that issued after North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 would not have to precipitate such a collapse. Indeed, with a leaked UN report stating that North Korea is defying current sanctions by using front companies to export nuclear and missile technology to Burma, Iran and Syria, a public reprimand really seems the very least Beijing can do.