In the summer of 2006, in the immediate aftermath of North Korea's unexpected long-range missile launch, the Chinese government quietly sent a senior envoy, former foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan, to Pyongyang to express Beijing's displeasure. Tang cooled his heels for a couple of days, before finally meeting briefly, diplomatic sources have said with leader Kim Jong Il. Just three months later, in October 2006, North Korea again defied the world and tested a nuclear bomb for the first time.
If Pyongyang has, in the past, made a habit of annoying China, its only ostensible ally in the world, what must Beijing be thinking now? For most of the past six years, Beijing has been the host and chief promoter of the so-called six-party talks. Their explicit goal: to get North Korea to give up its nuclear-weapons program. When the North launched another long-range ballistic missile in early April, Beijing helped promote the fig leaf at the U.N. Security Council that the rocket carried a communications satellite and thus might not be a direct violation of two U.N. resolutions calling on Pyongyang to cease its nuclear and ballistic-missile programs. The result was a toothless "presidential statement" from the Security Council. Now, with the test of another nuke on May 25 this one with more than 20 times the explosive capacity of its predecessor three years ago Pyongyang has put the Chinese leadership in the one place they hate to be during an international crisis: directly on the spot. Indeed, says Alan Romberg, a former U.S. State Department official now with the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, "Pyongyang has spit in the [People's Republic of China's] eye." (See pictures of North Koreans going to the polls.)
The question everyone from President Barack Obama on down is now asking What does Beijing want from Kim Jong Il? isn't necessarily the right one. Beijing has said in no uncertain terms that a nuclear North Korea is contrary to the "core interests" of the People's Republic of China. The more important questions are (and have been all along): How much leverage does Beijing actually have over the North to begin with, and how much political will do the Chinese have to defend their "core interests" when it comes to North Korea?
To begin to understand the situation, the outside world should start by ignoring the standard cliché from the two governments that they are "as close as lips and teeth." Over the years, says Bruce Klingner, a senior analyst at Washington's Heritage Foundation and a former deputy chief for Korea in the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence, the agency's analysis section, "the talk in both capitals about the other has often been pretty scathing." Even during the Cold War, Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il's father, would routinely play the Soviet Union and China off each other. In 2002, Kim Jong Il made a well-publicized trip to China, and in Shanghai the country's showcase of development the Dear Leader famously said it was clear that Chinese economic reform had "worked." Less well known is that on the same trip, Kim said that North Korea's unique characteristics were such that economic reform would not work there. And, indeed, it's never really been tried, despite China's prodding its neighbor to move down that road. (See pictures of Kim Jong Il.)
But while Pyongyang and Beijing have never been as close as the propaganda would have it, the two countries do have shared interests. It's how much weight to give those interests, relative to the costs of supporting Pyongyang internationally, that vexes Beijing's leadership. Just as there have been tensions in Washington over how to handle the North during the Bush Administration, those favoring a harder line prevailed at first, before the State Department's "negotiate now, negotiate forever" camp took over so, too, are there conflicting opinions in Beijing over what to do. As described by a diplomatic source who had direct involvement in the six-party talks, the Chinese Foreign Ministry which is tasked with integrating Beijing's North Korea policy with its relations around the world, including its bilateral relationships with Washington, Tokyo and Seoul has been more willing to accommodate those nations' concerns. But the other, probably more powerful influence in Beijing is the international department of the Chinese Communist Party, which tends to be pro- Pyongyang. Those two factions often struggle to influence the decisions of the senior leadership in Beijing whose "red lines" when it comes to Pyongyang seem to be a "constantly moving target," as John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under Bush, puts it.