December 10, 2002: Pollyanna-like on Pyongyang

July 15, 2019
The Washington Times

The "strong" Jiang-Putin stance on North Korea is an illusion


by John Tkacik


When it comes to judging Russia's and China's value as strategic players in international affairs, the world media -- and even professional diplomats in the Administration -- see what they want to see.  But they don't see the facts. 


Take the breathless announcements in most American and European newspapers last Tuesday: "Putin and Jiang criticize N. Korea Arms Program", said The Washington Post; or "Putin and Chinese Leader . . . caution North Korea on Nuclear Arms", according to the New York Times; or "China, Russia seek halt to North Korean Nuclear Drive" (Financial Times), to name a few.  Administration officials judged it “positive” that both China and Russia supported the U.S.


But the truth is that China and Russia had done no such thing.  When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Beijing last week, he joined Chinese President Jiang Zemin in signing eight densely-printed pages covering at least 28 separate issues: strategic cooperation, economic and trade ties, terrorism, Taiwan, environment, immigration, crime and law enforcement, cultural and scientific exchanges, Israel-Palestine, Central Asia, America's dangerous ballistic missile defenses in Asia, et cetera, et cetera. 


At the very end of the document (just ahead of Afghanistan which the two leaders apparently regard as their least important shared interest), Putin and Jiang said cryptically, "both sides hold that it is crucial to peace and security in northeast Asia to preserve a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and the system for non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."  (Of course, you can’t "preserve" a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula because it doesn’t exist.)


In the next sentence, the two statesmen went on to "emphasize” that Washington and Pyongyang should, “as always, abide by all agreements reached before including the 1994 framework agreement."  Again, Putin and Jiang seemed to have been under the odd impression that the U.S. and North Korea are still abiding by the 1994 Framework Agreement -- "as always".   Yet, North Korea's recently-exposed nuclear weapons program is a fatal violation of the "Framework". 


The brief Putin-Jiang paragraph on Korea then moved beyond the niggling issue of nuclear weapons and called on Washington to start "the normalization of relations in the principle of conducting constructive and equal dialogs for catering to mutual concerns."  In diplomatese, this is Beijing's (and Moscow's) way of saying the fault lies not in Pyongyang but in Washington which could resolve the problem of  Pyongyang's terrifying mendacity with "constructive and equal dialogs" which "cater to mutual concerns." 


But that was it!  That was the sum total of Russia's and China's "call on North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program." Nothing more was said about North Korea's nuclear ambitions.  Not in the joint statement, nor in the leaders' joint press conference, nor anywhere else in the public record.  How does one read into these anodyne sentences that either China or Russia "cautioned" or "criticized" or even "sought to halt" Pyongyang's dangerous nuclear machinations?


Now, here is a fact: neither China nor Russia has done anything at all to influence North Korea's nuclear ambitions.  Although U.S. diplomats call the Sino-Russian leaders' brief Korean allusion "positive", they do not claim that either Moscow or Beijing has actually done anything -- behind-the-scenes or otherwise.  Other administration sources confirm Beijing has steadfastly refused to get involved, but nonetheless feel compelled to go along with the general media spin by suggesting President Bush should praise Putin and Jiang in an effort to encourage them to do more.


That is Pollyannaish. It is clear from the Chinese media, if not the Western press, that North Korea is at the bottom of China’s priority list.  China's main newspaper failed to mention North Korea at all in its reportage of the Russian president's visit last week.


What the Chinese press did say, however, was instructive.  A commentary in China’s People's Dailymade the convoluted promise that Russia and China would "in coordination, seek the possibility of a 'dialogue' with American unilateralism" and implied that both China and Russia face an American threat.  What threat? "Whether it is NATO's expansion to the East, the United States' invasive [sic] war on Iraq, the Korean Peninsula Issue or anti-terrorism and separatist forces, China and Russia both have congruent stances and common interests," the paper explained. This is the way the Chinese media tell their billion readers the "Korean Peninsula Issue" is just another American encroachment in Asia.  The message to the Chinese people is unmistakable.  "Korea ain't our problem, it's an American one." 


It is unfortunate that the Administration seems to be turning a blind eye to China's distinct lack of enthusiasm for addressing the North Korean nuclear threat.  But it would be disastrous if Washington rewards bad behavior by applauding the "strong Sino-Russian statement" because the statement is in fact the weakest statement they could have made -- weaker even than if they had made no statement at all.  The U.S. Deputy Secretary of State will be in Beijing tomorrow (Wednesday, December 11) to confer with the Chinese on Pyongyang's nuclear challenge.   He should go into those talks with the facts about China's North Korea policy -- not a media-driven illusion.


Mr. Tkacik, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, served in the U.S. foreign service in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.


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