Magazine Article - Arms Control Today

Ending North Korea's Nuclear Ambitions: The Need for Stronger Chinese Action

| July/August 2009

North Korea has recently taken a series of provocative steps to challenge the international community. These steps include test-launching a long-range rocket, walking away from the six-party talks and all disarmament agreements, kicking out international inspectors from its nuclear facilities, conducting an underground nuclear test May 25—a more powerful blast than the one conducted in 2006—testing a half-dozen short-range missiles, and announcing it had resumed plutonium production and started a program to enrich uranium. Pyongyang reportedly also is preparing a long-range missile test and a third nuclear test. If unchecked, North Korea will surely increase the quantity and quality of its arsenal. Even worse, once Pyongyang has more than enough weapons for its deterrent, it might be tempted to sell the surplus. The longer the crisis lasts, the more nuclear capable North Korea will become and the more difficult it will be to roll back Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

China, North Korea's most important ally and trade partner, has joined the rest of the international community in responding to the North Korean actions. Beijing has indicated, however, that it wants a balanced approach and does not want to push Pyongyang much harder. Nevertheless, China can and should do more to press its neighbor. North Korea's recent series of actions threatens China's national interests as well as those of the United States and countries in Northeast Asia.

It is important to have realistic expectations for changes in China's approach. Beijing can be expected to support modest UN sanctions against North Korea, as it did in response to the first nuclear test, but it probably will respond less strongly than the United States, Japan, and South Korea would hope. Beijing probably will maintain that any harsh measures should be directed toward facilitating talks over denuclearization but should not destabilize the North Korean regime.

On the other hand, Beijing must recognize that its modest approach, as the past several years have demonstrated, has not successfully constrained Pyongyang's nuclear development. Pyongyang proceeded with its two nuclear tests and has again boycotted the six-party talks. The May test has exacerbated the tense situation on the Korean peninsula and has destroyed regional stability. These results do not serve Beijing's major interest: a nuclear-free and stable Korean peninsula. If Beijing continues to allow Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions to go unchecked, Pyongyang will put Beijing in an embarrassing position, open it to more international pressure, and ultimately pose great risks to China's national interests.

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For Academic Citation: Zhang, Hui. “Ending North Korea's Nuclear Ambitions: The Need for Stronger Chinese Action.” Arms Control Today, vol. 39. July/August 2009.