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A fine balance: The world looks to China to rein in North Korea

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

Despite the political upheavals in Thailand that aborted summit meetings scheduled in Pattaya between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its dialogue partners, the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea managed to meet and reach agreement on pushing forward six-party talks in the wake of North Korea's rocket launch.

And in the United Nations, Japan and the five permanent members of the Security Council agreed on a compromise. Instead of passing a binding resolution, they agreed on issuing a president's statement, which is somewhat less forceful.

The world looks to China to reconvene the six-party talks, which have broken down over procedures to verify Pyongyang's nuclear declaration, which it issued in June of 2008. Beijing, therefore, has to weigh international outrage over the controversial rocket launch against North Korea's likely reaction to any condemnation by the UN. The compromise of a presidential statement was, in the circumstances, the only possible decision.

A Security Council resolution, favoured by Japan and the United States, could well have closed the door to a resumption of the six-party talks, which stalled last December. Even a presidential statement will trigger a strong reaction but it will probably leave the door open to future talks.

The North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was re-elected last Thursday by the Supreme People's Assembly to a third term. The 68-year-old Mr. Kim is believed to have suffered a stroke last August and has visibly aged since then. He is still in charge of his reclusive nation but what will happen after he departs is a big question mark.

China and North Korea are celebrating the 60th anniversary of their establishment of diplomatic relations on Oct. 6, 1949, only five days after the proclamation of the People's Republic. The two countries have dubbed 2009 as a year of friendship.

North Korea's premier, Kim Yong-il - who is not related to Kim Jong-il - paid a goodwill visit to China last month as part of the year's festivities.

While the two countries maintain cordial relations, the relationship is not the close alliance that it was in the 1950s, when China sent troops to fight alongside North Korean soldiers against American and other allied forces on the South Korean side. At the time, China described the relationship as being as close as "lips and teeth."

Beijing has distanced itself from Pyongyang and, in 2006, voted twice in the Security Council to condemn North Korea, first for conducting missile launches and later for holding a nuclear test. In fact, China has parlayed its position as chair of the six-party talks into much closer relations with the United States.

At the time North Korea made veiled accusations against China, calling it a renegade to the socialist cause that had joined the capitalist world. North Korea depicted itself as the only country still willing to defend socialism.

China has to play a number of balancing games. It has to balance its relationship with its former ally against its ties with the West, in particular the United States. It has to balance its position as an advocate of developing countries against the developed world. And it has to balance its position as a responsible power opposed to nuclear proliferation against its need to retain influence over the North Korean leadership.

China, which already finds itself surrounded by nuclear powers - the United States, Russia and India - does not want North Korea to turn into another nuclear neighbour, one that is all too unpredictable. However, it is also wary about pushing too hard and bringing about North Korea's collapse, which will result in a flood of refugees into the country.

The announcement earlier this month by the United States and Russia of talks to cut their nuclear stockpiles and to aim for a nuclear-weapons-free world will put additional impetus into the move to contain and eventually eradicate North Korea's nuclear program.

Pyongyang had multiple goals for going ahead with the rocket launch despite overwhelming international opposition. On the domestic side, it wanted to show its population that North Korea is a country that must be reckoned with by the world, and that its leadership remains strong.

Another goal was undoubtedly to divide the international community, pitting hard-line countries such as Japan and the United States against China and Russia. Fortunately, those countries recognized the need for maintaining a united front vis--vis North Korea. By agreeing to a compromise statement, they have showed that, on the need to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, they still stand united.

Frank Ching is author of China: The Truth About Its Human Rights Record.

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