In January 2004, Henry Kissinger opined that “eliminating North Korea’s nuclear program is overwhelmingly in the Chinese interest.” And in May 2005, then-Senator Joseph Biden stated: “After all, we need China to help roll back North Korea’s nuclear program.” But if Beijing opposed North Korea’s nuclear program, Washington’s prodding would be unnecessary. China, never reticent about acting decisively on security concerns near its borders, would use economic leverage to stop it. There is no evidence that China ever attempted to restrain Pyongyang. Instead, since the United Nations condemned the two governments for aggression against South Korea six decades ago, they have proudly proclaimed they are as close as “lips and teeth.”
Beijing has protected North Korea from most international sanctions, recently blocking Security Council resolutions against the unprovoked Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks that killed 50 South Koreans. North Korea’s illegal nuclear program began in part with Chinese technology funneled through Pakistan’s nuclear scientist A. Q. Kahn and possibly also directly from China. Beijing also helped Pyongyang develop its ballistic-missile technology.
After North Korea was on the path to full-blown nuclear and missile development, China consistently deflected international efforts to curtail the programs. Beijing weakened the 2006 and 2009 Security Council resolutions condemning North Korea’s nuclear tests and has failed to enforce them. Pyongyang, having benefited from China’s proliferation, soon became a proliferator in its own right, selling the technology for weapons of mass destruction to other regimes hostile to the West and often transporting materials through China.
While China’s role in keeping the North Korean regime in power—and in the WMD business—is indisputable, analysts have offered unconvincing explanations of Chinese motives. U.S. experts have assured us that China shares our nuclear concerns but fears instability on the Korean peninsula. They accept China’s argument that even threatening to cut economic aid would collapse Kim Jong Il’s regime and trigger a refugee flow into China. But it has been clear for 60 years that the sole cause of instability between the Koreas has been Pyongyang’s own bizarre and dangerous behavior, despite substantial aid and concessions from accommodating South Korean governments. Yet China stands by its ally.
An honest diplomatic history of this period will show that China knowingly, and for its own purposes, enabled North Korea’s emergence as a nuclear power and WMD proliferator. It will also reveal that the credulity of many in America’s bipartisan foreign-policy establishment enabled China to succeed.
In a recent address, Kissinger declared that “China cannot possibly want a nuclear Korea, or Vietnam for that matter, at its borders.” But the evidence indicates that regarding North Korea, that is exactly what China wanted and expected all along. The 20-year nuclear saga has advanced China’s foreign policy and national-security objectives in several ways:
• Massive Western aid was coerced, helping to keep in power a close Communist ally and prevent a unified, democratic Korea.• China has won enormous prestige as “a responsible international stakeholder” working within the Six-Party Talks, ostensibly to contain North Korea’s nuclear activities.• Beijing’s negotiating leverage with Washington has been greatly enhanced on trade imbalances, currency manipulation, human-rights violations, and Taiwan. • Washington’s diplomacy and defense planning has been distracted; attention and resources have been diverted from Iraq, Afghanistan, and counterterrorism; and public support for overseas commitments has been strained.• U.S. counterproliferation efforts with Iran have been hindered, and dangerous technology has been spread to other anti-Western regimes and potentially to terrorists.
For decades, Pyongyang and Washington have each relied on Beijing as an indispensable partner in their competing national-security objectives. The results are in, and they vindicate North Korea’s strategy, not the West’s.
During Jiang Zemin’s 1999 visit, President Bill Clinton thanked China for controlling North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. In 2003, President George W. Bush was “heartened” by Jiang’s commitment to a nuclear-free peninsula. In 2008, he commended China’s “critical leadership role.” President Barack Obama should tell President Hu Jintao that until Beijing actually earns that praise by eliminating North Korea’s nuclear program, Washington and its allies will draw the necessary conclusions about China’s regional and global intentions.