North Korean Nuclear Arms: China, U.S. Now Share a Sense of Crisis
Kenzo UCHIDA (Professor of Political Science, Tokai University)
For the past few years, I have been going to Hawaii every summer to stand atop Diamond Head and speculate on the historic destinies of the United States and China, the two superpowers facing each other across the Pacific, and Japan, which is sandwiched between them.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, dramatic changes have marked the relationship between the U.S. and China. These changes have become even clearer this year with the war in Iraq and the tensions surrounding North Korea.
The war in Iraq has come to an end, although sporadic guerrilla fighting continues. Thus the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea has become the most serious diplomatic and military issue for the latter half of this year, involving the U.S., China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and even Russia.
One blunder could trigger an American preemptive attack on North Korea or Pyongyang's use of nuclear weapons.
Unlike Iraq, North Korea shares a border with another nation of the same ethnicity. Japan, too, is vulnerable to involvement in any conflict between the two Koreas as it lies within a stone's throw of the Korean Peninsula.
China, on the other hand, has long been plagued by an influx of illegal North Korean immigrants crossing the river separating the two countries. With the U.S. trying to intervene for denuclearization and peace in Asia from the opposite side of the Pacific, it is all the more natural for China as an Asian superpower to seek to contribute to regional stability.
It should be noted, however, that Beijing has had friendly ties with Pyongyang and taken a somewhat lenient attitude toward the latter's plan to possess nuclear weapons. It is unlikely, therefore, that China will follow the footsteps of the U.S. either in demanding that North Korea immediately and totally abandon its nuclear development programs or in seeking a regime change in Pyongyang. Russia, a former socialist state, is expected to take a similar stand.
In view of these circumstances, it seems that the six participants in the international game involving the Korean Peninsula are divided into two camps. The first consists of North Korea, South Korea and Japan, which face the serious threat of being directly involved in and becoming victims of any incident that might be aggravated by Pyongyang.
By contrast, the three superpowers of the U.S., China and Russia, which constitute the other camp, are vying for leadership to tame North Korea and the Kim Jong Il regime from the standpoint of their respective global strategies.
Of these three superpowers, the U.S. and China, in particular, are keenly aware of the major qualitative international changes since the 9/11 terrorist acts and of the need to formulate global strategies to respond to such changes.
Since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has steamrolled "unilateralism" in its global strategies, waged a war on Iraq and succeeded in toppling the government of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Washington is also believed to have contemplated, in early stages, unilaterally overthrowing the Kim Jong Il regime in a bid to prevent North Korea from possessing nuclear weapons.
China, too, has expressed "understanding" of the U.S. position that terrorism is the world's biggest enemy, and modified its rigid past policy of criticizing anything Washington did. This has opened a new era of realistic bilateral relations between the U.S. and China.
It is fair to say that China now shares with the U.S. a sense of crisis and a desire for an amicable solution vis-a-vis North Korea's development of nuclear weapons. This makes it all the more likely that Beijing will act maturely in persuading Washington to soften its stand on Pyongyang, with a view toward preventing a sudden collapse of the friendly ties built over the years between China and North Korea.
As the six countries open talks in Beijing on Wednesday, let us hope that the two superpowers of the U.S. and China, especially China as the host nation, will steer the meeting in a flexible manner.
(This article originally appeared in the August 24, 2003 issue of The Japan Times. Do not quote without the author's permission.)