China-N Korea

By Lee Chi-dong

WASHINGTON, March 24 (Yonhap) -- While U.S. officials say China may be rethinking its policy on North Korea, skepticism lingers about the possibility that Beijing will finally turn its back on the communist ally.

Experts point out that China still has strategic, historical and ideological reasons to help North Korea stay alive.

"First, China's main interest in North Korea is not denuclearization; it is ensuring that the North Korean government does not fall," John Pomfret, a veteran U.S. journalist known for expertise on China issues, said in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post Sunday.

"While Beijing might be exasperated with the Kim dynasty's uncanny ability to wag China's dog, China will support Pyongyang because the alternative, a North Korean collapse, is worse," added Pomfret, who has authored several books on China. As a foreign correspondent, he covered the 1989 student protests there, but he was expelled from China due to alleged links with student ringleaders.

Pomfret cited memoirs by former President George W. Bush as providing a lesson to those who believe in pressuring China to achieve the denuclearization of North Korea.

In 2002, according to the memoirs, Bush invited China's then-President Jiang Zemin to his Texas ranch and asked for China's help in preventing North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. Jiang was quoted as saying that North Korea was Bush's problem, not his.

A few months later, Bush warned that Washington won't be able to stop Japan from acquiring nuclear weapons if Pyongyang continues its nuclear weapons drive, China remained unresponsive.

Only when the U.S. considered a military strike against North Korea did China react and cooperate in launching the six-way talks.

Many Chinese believe, Pomfret said, the reunification of the Koreas is not in Beijing's interests. China is worried that hundreds of thousands of refugees will flow into its territory.

"Beijing would also be faced with millions of Korea-Chinese inspired by a new, united homeland," he said. "Clearly for Beijing, the presence of a communist buffer state, even an irritating one, between China and South Korea remains critical."

China is apparently concerned about the U.S. government's renewed diplomatic and military focus on the Asia-Pacific region. Xi Jinping traveled to Russia last week for his first foreign trip as Chinese president, during which he emphasized the significance of the Beijing-Moscow ties.

Pomfret said some Chinese officials believe that a nuclear North Korea complicates U.S. security calculations more than it does China's.

But U.S. government officials expect changes in China's strategic assessment of the North Korea issue especially under the new leadership.

After meeting with Chinese officials in Beijing last week, David Cohen, the U.S. Treasury under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, also said, "We've heard nothing but strong intentions" to implement financial sanctions on North Korea.

"Our sense is that the Chinese government has been looking at what's been happening in North Korea recently as threatening the stability on the peninsula in a real way that implicates Chinese interests," he said.

President Barack Obama earlier openly said China is "recalculating" its policy on the troublesome ally.

"You're starting to see them recalculate and say, 'You know what? This is starting to get out of hand,'" Obama said in a television interview. "And, so, we may slowly be in a position where we're able to force a recalculation on the part of North Koreans."

Obama did not elaborate. Senior U.S. government officials later pointed out that Beijing had given consent, with relatively less diplomatic haggling, to tougher U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang for its Feb. 12 nuclear test.

Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister and foreign minister, said China seems to be increasingly considering its responsibility in the region and the world rather than drastically altering its approach toward Pyongyang.

"At one end China is backing North Korea, my country right or wrong approach; at the other end of the spectrum, China joining the mainstream of international public opinion in trying to rein the North Koreans in," he told reporters in early March.

"I think it's fair to say over the last several years the Chinese have been moving along that continuum but increasingly in the direction of greater acceptance of their role of global political and security responsibility."

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