In the search for ways to defuse the nuclear standoff with North Korea, all eyes have turned to Beijing. Seoul, Tokyo, Washington, and even, to some extent, Pyongyang all increasingly seem to assume that China will be the pivotal actor in resolving the present crisis. Given China's economic power, growing military strength, long-time relationship with North Korea, and sheer size, this seems a reasonable assumption. Yet it is also a highly questionable one, given a close examination of the contradictory pressures faced by the Chinese leadership.
For Beijing, the situation in North Korea is more complicated, less clear-cut, and perhaps even riskier than it is for any of the other involved parties, except, perhaps, South Korea. Its relations with Pyongyang are conflicted and increasingly contradictory. The very tools that seemingly give China potential leverage are all, by nature, double-edged and could redound to Beijing's disadvantage.
China recognizes that it cannot afford to be passive. Such a posture could aggravate the security concerns of its neighbors and deal a blow to its regional ambitions. Beijing's most likely path will be to seek a multilateral approach that enhances its prestige and influence, while also avoiding extreme reactions in Pyongyang and providing political cover in the event of continued stalemate, or worse.
Clearly, Washington and Beijing do not see eye to eye on North Korea. From the U.S. perspective, North Korea is a rogue state (one that is still technically a U.S. enemy, to boot), with an announced intent to develop further its nuclear capability and acquire nuclear weapons--in spite of formal agreements in which Pyongyang promised not to engage in such pursuits. Pyongyang's rhetoric and behavior highlight its willingness to use nuclear blackmail as a tool for achieving its aims. It has heightened tensions by implying that it might export nuclear weapons or fissile material if its needs are not met. Summed up, North Korea poses a tangible, real-time threat to U.S. allies in East Asia and to U.S. national security interests.
Viewed from this perspective, Washington must ensure that North Korea immediately ceases its nuclear development efforts and commits to fully verifiable nonproliferation safeguards. Then, and only then, can Washington begin taking steps to address North Korea's economic woes and other demands. The problem, however, is that North Korea is a proven violator of agreements. The list of broken promises reads ominously: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the International Atomic Energy Agency Safeguards agreement, the North-South De-Nuclearization Accords, and, perhaps most damaging to budding U.S.-North Korean dialogue, the Agreed Framework of 1994, under which North Korea agreed to freeze activities at its Yongbyon nuclear complex in return for external assistance.
North Korea is a potential source of proliferation for technology relating to weapons of mass destruction and/or the actual weapons themselves to other rogue states or terrorist entities. Even though North Korea is not generally seen as exporting or directly supporting international terrorism at this time, it has been guilty of such behavior in the past and remains a clear and unrelenting threat to U.S. allies South Korea and, possibly, Japan. Pyongyang's predilection for confrontation and coercion, harsh rhetoric and blackmail, and its total lack of credibility when it comes to honoring commitments make it a poor candidate for meaningful negotiations. All this reinforces a strong conviction in Washington that the only safe course is, in effect, to get the goods up front and--to paraphrase former President Ronald Reagan's famous guidance--verify, then trust.
Beijing sees things from a dramatically different angle. Chinese-North Korean relations exist in a far more congenial environment than the one that shapes U.S.-North Korea interactions. …