- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2013

SEOUL — Secretary of State John F. Kerry arrived here Friday, within range of North Korea’s recent nuclear threats on his first trip to Asia as America’s top diplomat  — an expedition that analysts say will be defined by efforts to persuade China to influence Pyongyang away from making further provocations.

With the U.S. and its Asian allies bracing for a possible missile test by North Korea this week, Republican lawmakers in Washington have suggested that the Obama administration should demand more action by China, the region’s most powerful nation and a longtime supporter of Pyongyang.

But some here argue that Mr. Kerry, who is slated to hold high-level meetings in Beijing this weekend, would be wiser to tread carefully in his approach to Chinese leaders.

“Rather than making any demands of Beijing, maybe it would be a good time to ask honest questions, like what is being done at this point and what Beijing’s assessment is in terms of what they’re trying to do to Pyongyang,” said B.J. Kim, a professor of international relations at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

Chinese President Xi Jingping has shown signs of annoyance over North Korea’s wave of threats, said Mr. Kim, who thinks the new government in Beijing may be eager to break albeit gently from the policy of tolerance that Hu Jintao pursued as president.

“Reading Xi’s mind will be the most critical thing here,” he said, adding that the best move for Washington may be to give the new Chinese leader “some opportunity to be different.”

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The Obama administration appears to agree.

“The indications that we have are that China is itself rather frustrated with the behavior and the belligerent rhetoric” coming from North Korea’s 28-year-old leader, Kim Jong-un, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said Thursday.

During a hearing of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, Mr. Clapper also said that “if anyone has real leverage over the North Koreans, it is China.”

He added that the antagonism coming from Kim Jong-un, who took control of North Korea one year ago this week, can best be explained by the young dictator’s desire to show his people that he is “firmly in control” and a hope that threats will manipulate the international community into making concessions to North Korea.

“I don’t think he has much of an endgame other than to somehow elicit recognition” and turn the nuclear threat into “negotiation and to accommodation and presumably for aid,” Mr. Clapper said.

Foreign policy insiders say China’s potential leverage over Pyongyang is rooted in trade and military ties that Beijing has maintained while the rest of the world has sought to isolate North Korea through the imposition of U.N. sanctions aimed at containing its nuclear program.

China has long been North Korea’s only ally. Mao Zedong’s intervention in the Korean War saved the North Korean regime from conquest by a U.S.-led coalition, and Beijing is still the North’s principal source of economic assistance and diplomatic support.

While some analysts say Beijing’s ties to North Korea remain strong, Mr. Kim, the Seoul professor, said there are signs that China’s new president is open to the alternative of creating “a much friendlier and closer relationship” with South Korea and the appearance that Seoul is ready to welcome such a development.

Mr. Kim cited rumors that recently elected South Korean President Park Geun-hye speaks fluent Chinese and has been eager to reach out to Beijing. “Some people say her Chinese is better than her English,” he said.

The notion, however, that U.S. allies such as South Korea are cozying up to Beijing is unlikely to sit well with many Republicans in Washington, where concerns are high that China’s real strategic desire is to subvert U.S. influence among Asia’s smaller nations.

Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, this week cited reports of a notable uptick in Chinese defense spending in contrast to calls for defense budget cuts in Washington.

“My concern is, could it be that we will cease to become the partner of choice to our allies if this trend continues?” he said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday.

“We’ve seen this in Africa,” said Mr. Inhofe, the committee’s ranking member. “Every time we have any type of a void that takes place in Africa, China moves in, and they seem to have the resources to do that.”

Other Republican lawmakers said the Obama administration simply is not aggressive enough toward China on the North Korea issue.

“It seems to me that we need to be, I would think, clearer with China as to what our expectations are,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican. “If there is a provocation between North and South Korea and we are required to engage, or North Korea engages us, that is to the detriment of China’s security as well.”

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, has gone further, arguing on Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that “China’s behavior has been very disappointing” and that Beijing could “cut off” North Korea’s economy if it so desired.

Another Republican lawmaker said Thursday that a recent assessment by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency found that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons.

While the assessment remains classified, Rep. Doug Lamborn, Colorado Republican, read an unclassified portion during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.

“DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles. However, the reliability will be low,” Mr. Lamborn said.

On Thursday, South Korea called for dialogue with the North, particularly over Pyongyang’s recent move to cease operations at an industrial complex that sits on the border and has long stood as an important, albeit precarious, symbol of cooperation.

Ryoo Kihl-jae, Seoul’s top official overseeing relations with the North, called on Pyongyang to “come to the dialogue table to discuss what [it] wants” regarding the complex.

But threatening rhetoric continued to emerge from North Korea.

Western news agencies reported Thursday that a state-run nonmilitary agency in Pyongyang had claimed the North has put its “striking means” on “standby for a launch” and that the “coordinates of targets” have been “put into warheads.”

While the consensus in Washington seems to be that China holds the keys to pressuring Pyongyang into stopping such rhetoric, getting Beijing to use them is a different matter one analysts say is likely to present difficulty for Mr. Kerry during the days ahead.

“The challenge is in convincing the Chinese that it’s actually in their interest to utilize that leverage,” said Scott Snyder, who heads the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“They’re primarily concerned about stability, and they’re worried that if they take those measures, it might increase the prospect for instability and it might reduce their leverage in terms of their subsequent ability to influence North Korea’s behavior,” he said.

Mr. Kim argued that Beijing is offering the “minimal support” to Pyongyang that it believes is necessary to maintain the status quo of “keeping the North Korean regime in place.”

Pulling the plug entirely likely would result in “total chaos,” which China seeks to avoid, he said, adding that it “would mean a flood of refugees across the border [into China]” along with a potentially ramped-up U.S. military posture on the Korean Peninsula.

With regard to Mr. Kerry’s strategy, Mr. Snyder suggested it should focus more immediately on China’s decision to side with Washington last month in supporting the most recent U.N. Security Council sanctions on North Korea.

A key point in the sanctions calls on U.N. member countries including China, which shares an 880-mile border with North Korea to “inspect all cargo” exiting or entering the nation if there are “reasonable grounds to believe” the cargo contains military equipment or materials the could be used to make nuclear weapons.

The Obama administration might seek to clarify whether Chinese leaders see eye to eye with Washington on the language, Mr. Snyder said.

“The issue is what is the cause for suspicion?” he said, adding that there well may be suspect items crossing the North Korean border that Chinese authorities are “just turning a blind eye to.”

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