Analysis & Opinions - International Herald Tribune

North Korean Crisis: China Shows the Way to Pyongyang

| May 14, 2004

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts: Recently, China has begun playing a remarkably proactive role in trying to facilitate a resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. The behavior is in direct contrast to its discreet demeanor during the 1994 phase of the nuclear imbroglio. What accounts for this? The answer, in large part, resides in China's policy of "xiaokang."

Originally mentioned in the Shijing, China's first collection of poems, the term was used by Chinese philosophers to refer to a comfortable, orderly society that honors ceremony and propriety. Deng Xiaoping went on to develop an economic xiaokang strategy that became the basis of his famous "three-step development strategy" for building a middle class society in China.

In recent months, xiaokang has become the Chinese leadership's dominant lens of analysis for dealing with North Korea.

Why is xiaokang so important to China? Achieving a $3,000 GDP per capita by 2020 is the Chinese leadership's key economic development goal. To achieve this goal, Beijing needs to prevent any security threats that might discourage foreign investment.

So the Chinese leadership initiated a major shift in its strategic thinking about North Korea. Recent interviews with influential Chinese government analysts yielded several findings.

First, Beijing is analyzing the nuclear issue largely from a cost-benefit standpoint in terms of how the crisis is affecting xiaokang objectives.

Second, Beijing is beginning to explore how it should deal with North Korea in the event the six-party talks collapse. Chinese policy analysts are actively examining ways to effect major economic and systemic reforms in North Korea. Such policies differ from the Pentagon's formulation of regime change, as Beijing is exploring ways to structure a peaceful accommodation with Kim Jong Il rather than a disruptive regime collapse.

The third key finding is that China is increasingly proactive and multilateral in its behavior, compared to its risk-averse, insular tendencies in the past. Traditionally a behind-the-scenes power broker,Beijing has taken a more visible role in encouraging Kim Jong Il to resume negotiations with the United States.

Strong Sino-U.S. collaboration in leading a multilateral effort to end the crisis is long overdue. Until recently, the Bush administration's approach to dealing with North Korea has centered on largely ignoring the reclusive regime and gradually cutting off its overseas sources of illicit funds. China's focus on achieving its xiaokang objectives presents the United States with an opportunity to forge an effective strategy for negotiating and implementing a comprehensive resolution to the nuclear imbroglio.

Unofficial U.S. delegations are no substitute for the difficult negotiations required to peacefully unravel the crisis. Superficial diplomatic maneuverings are clearly not producing results.

China has begun to act substantively. Now the United States should.

The writer is a fellow at theBelferCenterfor Science and International Affairs atHarvardUniversity's John F. Kennedy School of Government.


For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Park, John S..“North Korean Crisis: China Shows the Way to Pyongyang.” International Herald Tribune, May 14, 2004.