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NORTH KOREA: China Dismissive of Prospects for War

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Jun 9 2009 (IPS) - Dismissive of warnings that the Korean peninsula stands on the brink of war, China contends North Korea’s recent provocative actions are yet another illustration of brinkmanship aimed at attracting the U.S. attention. Beijing decried the North’s nuclear tests in late May, but remains uncommitted to tougher sanctions against the impoverished Stalinist nation.

Diplomats from the five permanent members of the Security Council – China, Britain, France, Russia and the U.S. – plus Japan and South Korea, have been conducting intensive bargaining sessions for almost a week attempting to agree on new measures to punish the defiant North.

They have signed off on widening the arms embargo imposed on Pyongyang after its first nuclear detonation in 2006, and new financial restrictions – but remain at loggerheads over the issue of inspecting cargo ships on high seas. China has warned that interdicting ships at sea on suspicion of carrying banned materials could provoke the North into a military response and at the very least discourage it from returning to talks on abandoning its nuclear programme.

North Korean state-run media warned Monday that Pyongyang “will consider any sanction a declaration of war and will take due corresponding self- defence measures.”

The Chinese foreign ministry has called on all parties to “exercise calmness and restraint” and “refrain from making any remarks or taking any action that may further deteriorate the situation.”

In the past two weeks North Korea has defied the international community by successfully test-firing its second nuclear device, firing a volley of ballistic missiles, and tearing up the 56-year truce agreement with South Korea. Further escalating tensions with the West, a Pyongyang court Monday sentenced two U.S. reporters to 12 years in a labour camp for an illegal border crossing and unspecified “grave acts.”

Still Pyongyang’s pledges that the Korean peninsula will return “to a state of war” have left many Korea watchers here unfazed.

“North Korea has never abided by any agreement, and tearing up the truce with the South comes as no surprise,” Zhang Liangui, an expert at the Central Party School, which trains communist officials here, told the Southern Weekend newspaper. “This is an act aimed at pressuring the West, and not an indication of an impending military conflict.”

China has played a leading role in the six-party negotiations to persuade Pyongyang to decommission its illicit nuclear programme and maintains that talks are the only way out of the nuclear stalemate gripping the peninsula. But Beijing blames the failure of the talks on the U.S.’s past harsh line on the North and its recent preoccupation with peace negotiations in the Middle East.

Beijing has been reluctant to criticise the North Korean regime on the grounds that it is not its policy to interfere in the internal affairs of other states. But there are deeper layers than that.

China and North Korea may be worlds apart in terms of international economic and political standing, but the two are still bonded by a long- standing communist alliance.

This year the two countries are celebrating 60 years of diplomatic relations and March saw the launching in Beijing of the “year of friendship between China and North Korea.” More than sixty events are planned to mark the anniversary of the bilateral ties – which coincide with communist China’s founding anniversary.

“The outside view that China has the most leverage over North Korea but does not want to exercise it is skewed,” says Zhan Xiaohong, researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “The North believes that it is simply following China’s example of using military power to gain the international respect it lacks because of its backward economic situation. How could China deny Pyongyang that?”

Zhan points out that in the 1960s China went through s similar period. Emerging from a devastating three-year famine the communist country was desperately impoverished but resolved to develop its nuclear weapons.

“It was the nuclear deterrent that made great powers like the Soviet Union and America take count of China, and it was nuclear power that was able to guarantee the country’s peaceful economic development over the next decades,” Zhan argues.

On the face of it, China joined the chorus of international condemnation of North Korea’s brinkmanship and even called off the visit of Chen Zhili, vice- chairwoman of the country’s legislature, to Pyongyang scheduled for early June. But Beijing has refrained from using harsh language in its comments regarding the North’s sabre-rattling, and has argued against pushing the Stalinist regime to the brink.

Beijing worries that imposing ever harsher economic sanctions on the North could destabilise further its stagnated economy and lead to the collapse of the regime. Yet as its biggest trade partner, China is an economic lifeline for North Korea. China’s exports account for 70 percent of the North’s fuel, 40 percent of its grain, and 80 percent of its consumer goods. Last year bilateral trade jumped 40 percent to reach 2.78 billion dollars.

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