- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2013

SEOUL — Secretary of State John F. Kerry will stare down the barrel of North Korea’s recent nuclear threats when he arrives here Friday on his first trip to Asia as America’s top diplomat — a trip 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 the Obama administration should demand more action by China, the region’s most powerful nation and long-time 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,” argues B.J. Kim, a professor of international relations at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

Newly appointed Chinese President Xi Jingping has shown signs of annoyance over North Korea’s recent wave of threats, said Mr. Kim, who believes the new government in China may be eager to break — albeit gently — from the policy of tolerance that former President Hu Jintao pursued toward Pyongyang.

“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.”

Specifically, Mr. Xi appears open to “a much friendlier and closer relationship with Seoul,” said Mr. Kim, who 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 cozying up with 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 on 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 GOP lawmakers said the Obama administration simply is not being 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.

Foreign policy experts generally agree that China has such power. But getting the Xi government to exercise it is a different matter — one 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, in Seoul, argued that Beijing right now is only 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 actually 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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