Will China Stand Up in North Korea?

On October 1, 1949, as Chiang Kai-chek's defeated Kuomintang (KMT) troops fled for Taiwan, Mao Zedong declared that "China has stood up." China has, indeed, stood up, and continues to rise as one of the world's largest economies. Last year, China alone accounted for roughly 60% of global export growth. But in a crisis, China's diplomatic influence usually resembles that of some peripheral backwater.

Nowhere does this seem truer than in China's own backyard. Beijing's seeming silence over the nuclear ambitions of North Korea has left US, Japanese, and South Korean officials alike wondering when it will "stand up" to assert its influence over its neighbor and erstwhile ally.

One reason China seems paralyzed in the current crisis is that, among the world's major powers, it is almost alone in having a genuine "two Koreas" policy. Since China established diplomatic relations with South Korea in the early l990's, economic ties have grown dramatically, and cultural relations have expanded at a comparable pace. China also reciprocated outgoing President Kim Dae-jung's overtures in the political-security realm, despite South Korea's strategic ties with the US.

But in recognizing South Korea, China took greater care than, say, Russia, in seeking to ameliorate North Korea's anxieties. China is North Korea's most important trading partner, with turnover exceeding $700 million in 2002, up 30% from 2001. Indeed, China is believed to supply about 70% of the North's oil, and has doubled its sales of grain and vegetables. While China no longer promises the North military support (except in the event of external attack), "consultations" are pledged.