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(News Focus) Pressure mounts on China to use leverage over N. Korea, but prospects dim

All Headlines 16:48 November 25, 2010

By Chang Jae-soon

SEOUL, Nov. 25 (Yonhap) -- The world is again looking to China to tighten its leash around an unruly North Korea after the combative regime mounted a massive artillery attack on a South Korean island on Tuesday. But to no one's surprise, Beijing is showing no willingness to use its clout over Pyongyang.

From U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan to British Prime Minister David Cameron, world leaders urged China to get tough with North Korea after the deadly shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island near the tense Yellow Sea border.

The shocking mid-afternoon attack on Tuesday killed at least four people, including two civilians, and wounded 18 others. It was the first time North Korea had bombed South Korean soil and civilian areas since the 1950-53 Korean War. Pyongyang's provocations had so far been limited to maritime skirmishes or gunfights across their heavily armed border.

"China does have influence with North Korea and we would hope and expect that China will use that influence, first to reduce tensions that have arisen as a result of North Korean provocations and then secondly to continue to encourage North Korea to take affirmative steps to denuclearize," said Philip Crowley, State Department spokesman.

"China is pivotal in moving North Korea in a fundamentally different direction," he said.

In separate phone conversations with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak Wednesday, Obama called for cooperation from China, while Japanese Prime Minister Kan urged Beijing to show a stern attitude toward the North and the British prime minister said he would ask China to join efforts to get Pyongyang to change its behavior.

Beijing is considered to have greater leverage over Pyongyang than any other nation as the impoverished nation's biggest provider of food and energy aid as well as diplomatic support. But convincing Beijing to use the influence has proven as difficult as convincing Pyongyang to end its bad behavior

Experts have said that China is concerned that instability in North Korea could hurt its economic growth, trigger a massive influx of refugees from the North and lead to the emergence of a unified Korean Peninsula under South Korean and U.S. control across its border.

In reaction to the North's unprovoked bombing, China again took up its usual phrase of "calm and restraint" without blaming its communist neighbor -- the same phrase that the country had repeatedly used when it rejected Seoul's plea for help in censuring the North at the U.N. Security Council for the March sinking of a warship.

"The Chinese side strongly urges the two Koreas to remain calm, exercise restraint and start dialogue and contact as soon as possible to avoid the recurrence of similar incidents," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Wednesday, though he said China takes the case "seriously."

On Thursday, Premier Wen Jiabao voiced concern over the escalating situation on the Korean Peninsula, saying China "has always been committed to maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and opposes any threat of force."

Amid international pressure, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi indefinitely postponed his plan to visit Seoul on Friday for talks with South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan that were expected to be dominated by the North's attack.

Analysts say there is almost zero chance of China complying with international calls for pressure on the North unless Beijing feels that its national interests are threatened by what Pyongyang does.

"China clearly has the leverage, but it won't use it because North Korea is in a power transition period," said Choi Choon-heum, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's efforts to bequeath power to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un.

"What is more important to China is to have a pro-Chinese North Korea under Kim Jong-un. For China, without stability in North Korea, there is no stability on the Korean Peninsula," he said.

The expert said that China could be forced to exercise its influence with North Korea if nuclear weapons are deployed to South Korea, which would then set off a nuclear arms race in the region with Japan and Taiwan also seeking to arm themselves with atomic bombs.

"China would feel its national interests are threatened if there is a nuclear domino" effect, he said.

Beijing has a track record of providing diplomatic support for the North and softening sanctions on the regime.

When the North conducted its second-ever nuclear test last year, the U.N. Security Council adopted tough sanctions, but China blunted them by providing economic aid to the impoverished neighbor through back doors.

China also softened the U.N. Security Council's response to the North's deadly ship sinking in March, leading it to adopt a vaguely worded presidential statement that condemned the torpedo attack without pinpointing North Korea as the culprit.

Hong Hyun-ik, an expert at the Sejong Institute, a security think tank south of Seoul, said China must also be feeling annoyed by North Korea because this week's shelling provided the United States and South Korea an excuse to deploy the aircraft carrier USS George Washington to the Yellow Sea for joint military exercises.

The drills, set to begin Sunday, are aimed at deterring North Korea from further provocations.

China is very sensitive about such maneuvers in waters close to it, and had strongly protested earlier this year when Seoul and Washington had announced massive anti-submarine exercise plans in response to March's ship sinking.

On Thursday, Beijing expressed concern about the upcoming exercises.

"We have taken note of relevant reports and express concern," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong said. "We oppose any act that undermines peace and stability on the peninsula."

Still, Beijing is unlikely to censure North Korea because it sees its relations with North Korea as a counterweight to the strengthening alliance between the United States and South Korea, the expert said.

"North Korea is a strategic breakwater for China," said Hong. "Their relationship is like that of teeth and lips. Without lips, teeth would suffer."


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