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Thursday, May 4, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Tom Plate / Syndicated columnist

A China double-cross on Korea?

LOS ANGELES — China is acting in bad faith on the Korean nuclear issue. That's the provocative suggestion now coming from some Western intelligence circles. It's a scary, foul and ultimately upsetting thought. It may also be wrong.

The nasty rumor resurfaced in the aftermath of Chinese President Hu Jintao's official visit to Washington last month. During the 90-minute session (why only 90 minutes?!!) of direct talks at the White House between Hu and President George W. Bush, the contentious question of North Korea's nuclear weapons program arose, as expected. But some accounts characterize Hu's response to the need to achieve the de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula as far less emphatic than Bush's.

If such alarming reports are true, this would be curious — at best. The principle of a non-nuclear Korea — for both Koreas, whether divided or even (someday) united — is one of the core agreements of the statement of principles hoisted last year by members of the Six Party Talks as evidence of diplomatic progress. Since 2003, these talks have been organ-ized and hosted by China in Beijing. They became and have remained the principle vehicle of the dogged multinational effort to reduce North Korea-sourced tensions in the region.

The Sept. 19, 2005, agreement was significant. Among other things, North Korea committed itself to close down any nuclear-weapons program and arsenal, rejoin "at an early date" the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and resubmit to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, including readmission of international inspectors to its nuclear facilities. The U.S. promised that it has no intention to attack or invade North Korea and has no nuclear weapons deployed in Korea. For its part, South Korea affirmed a no-nukes policy on its territory.

This diplomatic accord has been described by some observers as at least a conceptual breakthrough. It was also viewed as a triumph for newly active Chinese diplomacy. To ink the deal, Beijing got signatures from Japan, Russia, the United States, South Korea and North Korea.

Beijing's exhaustively patient diplomacy appeared to bear the fruit of a new level of international consensus on an issue which, for the U.S. and Japan at least, was at the very top of the agenda. But now comes the intimation that China is being two-faced with everyone involved, except for North Korea.

The prospect is almost too Machiavellian to contemplate without risking a heart attack. Beijing cultivates good relations not only with Washington but also with Seoul. Policy differences of all sorts bedevil and divide South Korea and the United States, but the two old allies who fought the Communists in the devastating Korean War have agreed on one thing over and again: Both Koreas should be completely free of nuclear weapons.

Double-dealing by China on this core principle would befoul the core relationships of a "peaceful-rising" China with some of the most important nations in its future. Trade and investment from Tokyo as well as Seoul has grown enormously; Russia and the United States are hugely important players in China's future. Would Beijing concoct a Big Lie by which all are to be fooled and humiliated just to allow North Korea to become a significant nuclear power?

The permanent nuclearization of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea would be of little benefit to the North Koreans themselves if it led to international economic isolation and a slowing of growth. It would certainly complicate Seoul's already over-complicated relations with Tokyo. As far as anyone can tell, the main beneficiary of Beijing's duplicity — of a secret pro-nuclear understanding between Beijing and Pyongyang — would be conservative circles in Japan. They have been increasingly restive about Japan's low military profile and more openlyeager than in recent memory to have their country assume a higher military profile.

And so if Hu is some day unveiled as a secret double-dealer on the vital North Korean nuclear question, then the Chinese president would be playing right into the hands of those factions in Japan that would wish his country the most harm.

No one has ever said that Hu is dumb. Therefore, the conspiracy theory by which China is playing Asia and the West for suckers on the Korean question makes no sense at all. It makes more sense to believe that China means what it said and did when it helped formulate the statement of principles last year and then, to great fanfare, put its signature to the document. Any other scenario for China would be just plain dumb.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is a veteran American journalist.

2006,Tom Plate