North Korean military officials attend a ceremony to celebrate the underground nuclear test, in Pyongyang, North Korea, May 26, 2009.
"US and China Must Stand Up to N. Korea"
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
May 31, 2009
SHOCKWAVES continue to emanate from the Korea peninsula following North Korea's recent nuclear and missile tests. Time is not on the side of those who want to put an end to the dangers posed by North Korea. The longer the crisis lasts, the more nuclear-capable North Korea will become; the risk of confrontation will increase, as will the price of getting North Korea to step back from the brink. The key to moving beyond the current impasse is coordinated action by the United States and China in the Security Council and beyond.
Washington holds what Pyongyang most wants and China has the most direct leverage on North Korea.
North Korea wants direct engagement with Washington toward a normalization of relations. Even as the Security Council deliberates on a new round of sanctions, in exchange for refreezing all plutonium production, Washington must offer North Korea the promise of immediate talks under the Six Party framework on ending the state of war. This symbolic step would provide significant reassurance to Pyongyang as the North Korean regime contends with a leadership transition.
The next step should be a return to the process of disabling and then dismantling North Korea's nuclear facilities, as agreed previously. A new roadmap that links North Korean denuclearization with the gradual delivery of concrete benefits, based on the "action for action" principle, would facilitate subsequent steps. Destinations on this roadmap should include security assurances, full diplomatic normalization, economic reform, and Northeast Asian security cooperation. The United States must take the first step.
Beijing must press Pyongyang to accept Washington's offer. As North Korea's ally for more than 50 years, China has the most direct means of exerting influence. North Korea depends on China for up to 90 percent of its oil and for much of its food aid.
Beijing must support new Security Council sanctions and begin tying the supply of oil and food aid to Pyongyang's cooperation. Such an approach promises to bring results: In 2003, Beijing temporarily shut down an oil pipeline to North Korea for "technical reasons" and reportedly played a key role in bringing the North Koreans to the negotiating table.
China should make clear that North Korea cannot have both nuclear weapons and an end to its isolation. A continuing crisis will only generate increasing international pressure and economic sanctions, further devastating the already suffering North Korean economy.
China and the United States both have critical interests in resolving the North Korean crisis. For the United States, the danger of North Korea secretly transferring nuclear materials or technology to another state (as it reportedly did with Syria) or to terrorist group is the most serious concern.
Additional North Korean nuclear and missile tests could also expand Pyongyang's nuclear-strike capability beyond South Korea and Japan to US territory. North Korean intransigence also threatens major elements of Barack Obama's global nuclear security agenda, providing political fodder to critics who oppose a nuclear test ban, fissile material cutoff, and the prospect of deep reductions in US and Russian nuclear arsenals. North Korean defiance undermines nuclear nonproliferation norms just as the world prepares for a vital review conference for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Beijing shares these concerns and has others. Preserving stability in the region, which is indispensable to China's economic development, is Beijing's top priority. A nuclear-armed North Korea will feed the impulses of Japan, South Korea, and even Taiwan to reconsider the option of acquiring their own nuclear weapons.
China is worried that the Korean nuclear and missile crisis will provide a pretext for accelerating the deployment of a joint US-Japanese missile defense shield, which undermines China's own modest deterrent force.
China also fears a large influx of Korean refugees in the event of a worsening crisis. And terrorist groups within China, such as those in "East Turkestan" in Xingjian with links to external groups, could attempt to acquire nuclear weapons or fissile materials from North Korea.
To facilitate enhanced Chinese support for North Korean denuclearization, Washington should also address some of Beijing's security concerns, including US-Japanese missile defense cooperation and sales of missile defense capabilities to Taiwan. The United States and China could also offer one another specific assurances regarding military deployments on the Korean peninsula. Even in the event of a North Korean collapse, the United States has no intention of moving its forces to the Chinese border; it would reduce Beijing's concerns if Washington said so.
The Six Party talks should provide a forum for negotiating a permanent peace in northeast Asia. It is time for the United States and China to act jointly to free the Korean peninsula from its cold war shackles and address the underlying causes of the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Regardless of Pyongyang's intention, if Washington and Beijing really cannot tolerate a nuclear North Korea, the United States must offer a path forward, and China must push North Korea from behind.
Martin Malin is executive director and Hui Zhang is a research associate at the Project on Managing the Atom in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.
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