BEIJING – North Korea’s bold statement that it has nuclear weapons in order to thwart a possible U.S. strike puts Beijing in an uncomfortable position.
This is because it exposes China’s ambiguous position on the primacy of the United Nations when it comes to dealing with the Stalinist country.
As North Korea’s oldest and staunchest ally and a UN Security Council member with veto-wielding power, China’s stance on Pyongyang’s nuclear threat is crucial to resolving the crisis on the Korean peninsula.
But ever since Pyongyang expelled the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) inspectors in 2003, Beijing has blocked all efforts to censure North Korea at the UN Security Council.
Instead, Beijing has chosen to host nuclear talks between the North and South Korea, Japan, Russia, and the United States. China’s willingness to act as a mediator is considered a marked departure from Beijing’s low-key diplomatic profile in the past and regarded as a sign of a new, more mature, and proactive diplomacy.
Three rounds of the six-nation talks, however, produced no breakthroughs.
In a dramatic announcement on Feb. 10, North Korea said it would indefinitely suspend its participation in the talks and "bolster its nuclear weapons arsenal in order to protect the ideology, system, freedom, and democracy chosen by its people."
"The situation on the Korean peninsula could become really serious should the U.S. decide to refer North Korea to the UN Security Council," said Shen Jiru, an international affairs researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). "The North had said it would treat that as a declaration of war. We can only guess about the consequences."
China has repeatedly voiced opposition to the unilateralism of the United States and backed the primacy of the Untied Nations Security Council in resolving international crises.
In supporting the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of sovereign states, Chinese leaders have argued that military force should never be used to solve the world’s problems because it contravenes international law.
However, Beijing has consistently impeded efforts to impose UN sanctions on North Korea despite evidence of breaches of international law.
Pyongyang stoked world fears when it threatened to pull out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in the early 1990s. It backed down after signing a 1994 deal with the Clinton administration promising to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for energy aid.
In 2003 however, Pyongyang withdrew from the treaty and expelled IAEA’s inspectors after North Korean leaders were confronted with U.S. intelligence that they had developed a secret uranium-enrichment program
Pyongyang’s admission this month to possessing nuclear weapons comes after months of official denial of running a secret nuclear program.
Rather than raise the alarm about an impending nuclear crisis that merits swift UN reaction, Beijing’s official reaction so far has been low key. State media sought to downplay the North’s statement and marginalize its impact.
A signed commentary in the Beijing News last week suggested Pyongyang’s nuclear swagger was a tactic for attracting international attention that could lead to an increase in foreign aid. It called the North’s pronouncements "surprising" but in line with Pyongyang’s customary "reckless and provocative behavior."
"Because North Korea always engages in these kinds of marginal tactics, no country in the world would trust that North Korea is now playing a true card," the commentary said.
Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing promised U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Beijing would use "all channels" of communication to encourage North Korea to return to the six-nation talks.
"China has always believed that the Korean peninsula should be free of nuclear weapons for peace and stability in the region," Li told Rice in a telephone conversation over the weekend.
Also, China is under strong pressure to persuade North Korea to come back to the negotiating table because U.S. intelligence has found Beijing guilty in the past in subverting the UN system of nuclear controls by supporting North Korea’s military buildup and its acquisition of missile technology.
U.S. officials say state-owned Chinese defense firms continue to send missile components and technology to countries with a record of being suspected nuclear proliferators.
Addressing a conference in Tokyo on Feb. 8, U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton identified China’s main missile clients as Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Pakistan.
"On numerous occasions we have expressed our concern about these entities to the Chinese government," Bolton said. "Unfortunately, we continue to see transfers by these serious proliferators of missile-related items to rogue states and outposts of tyranny."
Condoleezza Rice called North Korea "an outpost of tyranny" in her U.S. Senate confirmation hearings last month. Pyongyang cited her remarks as a sign of U.S. bellicose behavior., which made nuclear talks impossible.
Beijing continues to question the veracity of Pyongyang’s nuclear threats although outside observers also believe North Korea possesses enough nuclear material to produce weapons. According to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, Pyongyang may already have 10 nuclear weapons.
"If this is indeed true, Japan and South Korea might use it as a pretext to develop their own nuclear arsenal," said Shen from CASS. "This would mean the collapse of the nonproliferation treaty."
Pyongyang’s declaration that it possesses nuclear weapons comes after South Korea admitted last year it had secretly produced small quantities of plutonium and enriched uranium while conducting nuclear experiments.