- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 11, 2006

SEOUL — Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions are likely to figure in any negotiations North Korean leader Kim Jong-il holds in China this week, but Asian analysts see little chance that Beijing will use its growing economic clout to bring its neighbor to heel.

Analysts say China has become virtually the sole provider of consumer goods to North Korea, as well as a conduit for most foreign aid, giving it substantial economic leverage over the North.

But as Mr. Kim travels through China on an unannounced trip with a mysterious itinerary, those same analysts see little chance that Beijing will threaten him with an economic cut-off if his country does not return to six-nation talks on its nuclear program.

“Nothing would convince [the Chinese] to use their leverage,” said Choi Jin-wook of Seoul’s Institute of National Unification. “China said it does not tolerate North Korea’s nuclear programs, but it does not want North Korea to collapse.”

South Korea also has been reluctant to bring economic pressure on Pyongyang, partly for fear of falling further behind China in a long-term competition for trade opportunities in its northern neighbor.

The result is a narrowing of policy options for the United States, which reportedly was rebuffed by China last April when Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill asked it to cut off fuel supplies to North Korea.

Mr. Hill arrived in South Korea yesterday, a day after Mr. Kim was reported to have arrived in China by train. He said the timing was coincidental, but expressed hope that the Chinese will have “some very fresh news” about the North Korean leader’s nuclear plans.

There still has been no official announcement about Mr. Kim’s trip, and Mr. Hill said it “was a surprise to all of us.” China has previously announced Mr. Kim’s visits only after his return to Pyongyang.

However, the North Korean has plenty to discuss with China besides the nuclear talks — including economic and trade issues and new financial sanctions imposed by the United States in response to evidence his government is counterfeiting U.S. currency.

U.S. officials, ranging from Mr. Hill to Vice President Dick Cheney, have called in recent months for China to use its influence to press North Korea for greater cooperation in the nuclear talks.

But Peter Beck, regional director of the International Crisis Group, said that “China’s top concern is stability” and that it was unlikely to do anything to undermine its neighbor’s economy.

“They don’t want border instability,” agreed Moon Chung-in, a foreign-policy analyst at Seoul’s Yonsei University and an adviser to South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.

China already faces international criticism for forcibly sending North Korean refugees — variously numbered at between 100,000 to 300,000 — back to their homeland, where many face severe penalties. Heightened instability would almost certainly drive much larger numbers across the 600-mile frontier.

Chinese leaders also are reluctant to overrule the old guard in the Chinese Communist Party, which remembers the “blood alliance” forged between the two countries during the 1950-1953 Korean War.

China still maintains a 1961 treaty with North Korea which, on paper at least, places Beijing on Pyongyang’s side in any military confrontation with Washington.

Nevertheless, Beijing’s economic clout in North Korea is large and growing. Visitors to the North note that goods traded in markets are almost exclusively of Chinese origin.

“North Korea will, left to itself, become an economic province of China — and can do very well,” said a European businessman with close experience with the country, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “That is a route it can take, independent of aid.”

He added that Chinese businessmen have experience in operating within a communist system that South Korean investors lack, as well as the advantages of lower labor costs.

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