BEIJING—North Korea's claim that it already has nuclear weapons is likely to reveal how much power China has—or will chose to use—over its renegade neighbor and ally.
China pledged Sunday that it would pressure North Korea to return to six-party talks despite North Korea's dramatic statement late last week that it would abandon talks and build up its "nuclear weapons arsenal."
In an official statement, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said he had spoken with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and that China will "strive to make the situation develop in a positive direction so that the six-party talks could be resumed as soon as possible."
North Korea on Sunday demanded that the United States withdraw its 37,000 troops in South Korea in order to get nuclear talks back on track.
For its part, China is likely to minimize the extent of the crisis even as it leans on North Korea to come back to negotiations, experts on Northeast Asia said.
As North Korea's only ally, China is also feeling deeply discomfited in the aftermath of the nuclear claim, and will struggle to resolve the crisis even as Beijing and Washington jockey over competing long-term interests in the region, scholars said.
"China's strategy now is to deal with the issue in a low-profile approach," said Jin Canrong, associate dean of the School of International Studies at Peoples' University.
"China will increase its pressure (on North Korea)," Jin added, and will probe to determine if Pyongyang is simply bluffing about nuclear weapons as a negotiating ploy.
If world powers come to believe that North Korea is telling the truth about its nuclear arsenal, then China may be forced to let the matter go to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions against Pyongyang, policy-makers and academics in Beijing said in interviews in recent months.
Like the United States, China wants the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons to avoid sparking a nuclear arms race in the region. Both nations seek resolution of the current deadlock through the six-party talks China began hosting in 2003, experts said.
South Korea's foreign minister, Ban Ki Moon, said Sunday that the United States and North Korea could hold some direct talks—on which North Korea has insisted—in the course of renewed six-party negotiations. Ban's in Washington for a previously scheduled meeting with Rice on Monday. In an appearance on CNN's "Late Edition," he urged China to use its leverage over Pyongyang to bring it back to the negotiating table.
Yet Beijing has a complex and sensitive relationship with North Korea, a nation that has strategic value for China as a buffer state with South Korea, with its large U.S. military presence. Not so many years ago, propaganda here hailed ties between Chinese and North Korean communists as "closer than lips and teeth."
"The importance for China of keeping North Korea as a vital partner is rising," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Peoples University.
China has a host of grievances against North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and has counseled him to open his nation's bankrupt economy to market forces. It also has seen trade ties soar with South Korea to more than $60 billion a year, compared to the $1 billion or so a year it trades with North Korea.
But Shi said Chinese military strategists commonly view North Korea through the prism of Taiwan, the island to the south that China considers a renegade province.
Tensions along the Taiwan Strait have increased in recent years as China claims the right to reunify with Taiwan by force, an eventuality that few Chinese discount.
If China's military should move on Taiwan, Shi said, the Peoples Liberation Army could face a confrontation with the U.S. Seventh Fleet sailing to Taiwan's rescue.
In such a scenario, "any strategic diversion that the United States may face is vitally important for China," he said, noting that Beijing at such a moment might spur Pyongyang to cause an eruption of tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Aware of China's complex interests in maintaining a status quo on the Korean Peninsula, the Bush administration has heaped praise on Beijing for serving as host of three previous rounds of six-party talks, which bring together the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States. The talks hit a deadlock after a third round last June.
U.S. officials say only China can really sway North Korea, noting that as much as 80 percent of North Korea's fuel arrives across its border with China, and that Beijing holds a choke chain on Pyongyang's economy as its only real trade partner.
"China's influence in North Korea is not as much as the U.S. side imagines but not as little as China advocates," said Jin Linbo, director of the division of Asia-Pacific studies of the China Institute of International Studies. While China can say things to the Kim Jong Il regime "that other countries cannot say," Jin said, Pyongyang officials resist any measures that might weaken their ironclad political control.
Jin said the China and the United States share an abiding interest in preventing North Korea from sparking a nuclear arms race, potentially destabilizing East Asia.
"If we fail to realize the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, (a nuclear arms race) is quite possible," Jin said. Both South Korea and Japan might be tempted to seek such weapons, he added.
"Japan can develop nuclear weapons probably with months, or even weeks," he said.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050210 Nuclear nations
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