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China keeps US waiting on North Korea's future

U.S. attempts to draw up a broad contingency plan in case North Korea's government collapses are being complicated by China's refusal to talk about potential chaos engulfing its dysfunctional neighbor.
/ Source: The Associated Press

U.S. attempts to draw up a broad contingency plan in case North Korea's government collapses are being complicated by China's refusal to talk about potential chaos engulfing its dysfunctional neighbor.

Both Washington and Beijing are growing more anxious about the stability of the Korean Peninsula, with Pyongyang's recent missile and nuclear tests, uncertainty about the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and the apparent designation of his 26-year-old son as successor.

There is much Washington wants to go over with Beijing in a meltdown scenario: securing North Korea's nuclear weapons, dealing with panicked North Koreans overrunning borders and drawing up ground rules to keep the U.S. and Chinese militaries from clashing as they did in the 1950-53 Korean War.

The U.S. has raised the idea of joint talks in several meetings with senior Chinese officials, most recently during a visit to Beijing last month by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, The Associated Press has learned from foreign diplomats and Chinese scholars briefed on the meetings. Chinese officials rejected the overtures, although they pledged to work constructively with the U.S. on North Korea. Both the scholars and the diplomats asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The Chinese foreign ministry sidestepped questions from the AP on the U.S. requests and North Korean contingency plans, saying only that "China has always been engaged in realizing peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula." The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. has 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea and treaty obligations to defend that country and nearby Japan. China too is wary about being drawn into conflict that might destabilize its northeastern areas near the North Korean border, which have struggled economically in the past decade.

Without careful planning with China, the U.S. is concerned that both armed forces could be drawn into conflict accidentally or be ill-prepared to handle attacks by North Korea's army, the world's fourth largest. The South Korean capital, Seoul, is 40 miles (65 kilometers) from the North Korean border and a tempting target for a dying regime. If North Korea mounts an armed resistance to foreign militaries, a force larger than the U.S. committed to Iraq might be needed, a Council on Foreign Relations study said in January.

"We have to talk about the potential mess because the probability is low but it could be catastrophic," said Drew Thompson, a China expert at the Nixon Center in Washington.

However, he said, the Chinese government's unwillingness to discuss North Korea's future with Washington is understandable given the difficulty in sundering longstanding ties. "It's hard to talk about your grandma before she's gone. This is estate planning."

Beijing has ample reasons for not drawing too close to Washington. Should North Korea learn about U.S.-China talks on a post-Kim future, Beijing is worried that its already tetchy ally would become more difficult to deal with. If Kim's regime crumbles, China's communist leadership may want to preserve North Korea as a buffer state, rather than see a unified Korea ruled by U.S.-allied Seoul that could bring a democratic government and American troops to China's doorstep.

"It's most urgent to talk with the U.S. about this future," said Jin Canrong, an international affairs expert at Renmin University in Beijing. But North Korea "will accuse us of being too colonialist for trying to arrange their future," Jin said, and "in the minds of our leaders, there's still a lack of confidence and trust in the United States."

With its interests partly aligned and partly diverging from Washington, Beijing is trying to curb North Korea's provocations while keeping its options open.

"Who isn't irritated by Kim Jong Il at this point? But what can be done about it?" said Cui Yingjiu, a retired professor of Korean at Peking University whose proteges include several officials in the foreign-policy establishment.

In signing on to recent U.N. sanctions, Beijing for the first time agreed to a travel ban on individuals, in this case North Koreans running the nuclear program and companies believed to be involved in arms-trading.

China has also repeatedly suggested to Pyongyang that it might opt out of a 48-year-old treaty that commits each to defending the other. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters last month that China's relations with North Korea are like those "with any other country around the world" — downgrading a relationship both sides often referred to as forged in the blood of war and nurtured by fraternal communist revolutionaries.

China's North Korea specialists and think tanks are studying possible post-Kim futures, from a peaceful transition to a new government to factional warfare, Cui and other experts said.

Cui attended North Korea's Kim Il Sung University nearly 50 years ago. He regularly hosts friends from his school days — retired civil servants, policy researchers and other members of the North Korean elite — at his two-story house in Beijing's north suburbs. Recent visitors, Cui said, have described a power shift, with Kim Jong Il throwing his support behind military hard-liners and away from economic reformers to ensure the succession of his son, Kim Jong Un.

Even if that transfer goes awry, Cui said, the most likely outcome is neither meltdown nor reunification with South Korea but a successor regime, perhaps a military government, in Pyongyang that will need Beijing even more. "The hard-liners will have to rely on China because they won't have the political power to deal with the United States," Cui said.

In trying to coax Beijing into talking, U.S. officials have raised the prospect that a North Korea with nuclear arms could cause longtime regional rival Japan to go nuclear. The argument does not convince Cui, Jin and others because a nuclear Japan could also be bad for Washington, undermining the American guarantee of protection that is the foundation of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

If China eventually decides to discuss a North Korean implosion with the U.S., the governments would probably be better served by letting their militaries, not civilian officials, do the talking, said Thompson, with the Nixon Center.

A meltdown would likely displace large numbers of people, and the People's Liberation Army has displayed its ability to cope in handling natural disasters like last year's Sichuan earthquake. PLA researchers told a group of U.S. scholars in 2007 that contingency plans were in place for the Chinese military to handle North Korean refugees and even go in to secure nuclear weapons and clean up nuclear contamination.

"So you can bet they have a plan for North Korea," said Thompson. "Will we ever see it? Hell no. Do they have it? Yeah."