By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 2010; 7:28 AM
The United States has stepped up diplomatic pressure on China by accusing its leaders of "enabling" North Korea to start a uranium-enrichment program and to launch attacks on South Korea, a senior U.S. administration official said this weekend.
In response to the North Korean moves and apparent Chinese acquiescence, Washington is moving to redefine its relationship with South Korea and Japan, potentially creating an anti-China bloc in Northeast Asia that officials say they don't want but may need.
In meetings with their Chinese counterparts in Beijing and in Washington since North Korea launched a deadly artillery barrage at a South Korean island on Nov. 23, U.S. officials have charged that China is turning a blind eye to North Korean violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions, international agreements and a 1953 armistice halting the Korean War that China helped to negotiate.
The accusations mark a further deterioration of the tone and direction of the U.S. relationship with Asia's emerging giant and come as both countries prepare for a second summit next month between President Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao.
"The Chinese embrace of North Korea in the last eight months has served to convince North Korea that China has its back and has encouraged it to behave with impunity," said a senior administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "We think the Chinese have been enabling North Korea."
The Korean Peninsula, the official added, has catapulted to the "top of the security agenda when President Hu comes here . . . and the Chinese are aware of it."
Obama called Hu on Sunday night to discuss North Korea and urged China to help send a clear message to Pyongyang "that its provocations are unacceptable," the White House said Monday.
"The president emphasized the need for North Korea to halt its provocative behavior and to meet its international obligations," the White House said. "The president condemned the North Korean shelling of a South Korean island on November 23 and its pursuit of a uranium enrichment program in defiance of its obligations." It said Obama "also highlighted the American commitment to the security of our allies in the region."
The White House statement said Obama and Hu agreed on the importance of working together toward the "shared goals" of peace and stability in Northeast Asia and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But it made no mention of Hu's response to Obama's complaints about North Korea."
A Chinese statement on the phone call said Hu "regrets the loss of lives and property" in the North Korean shelling last month. It was the first such comment from Hu about the attack, but it echoed an earlier North Korean expression of regret for killing civilians.
The U.S. exasperation with China over the Koreas has been evident since June, when Obama accused China of "willful blindness" in remaining silent over North Korea's suspected sinking of a South Korean warship in March. But the administration's position now that China is in effect partially to blame for the problems is new.
At a meeting Monday with the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hopes to begin the process of tightening the three-way relationship, as a response to the persistent North Korean provocations and China's inaction. The United States and South Korea announced Friday the successful renegotiation of their free-trade agreement, which will be as important strategically as it is economically to the U.S. presence in the region.
This week South Korea joined ongoing U.S.-Japan military exercises as an observer - a significant move for a country that was once occupied by Japanese forces. And on Monday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, will go to South Korea to further show U.S. support for its ally.
While the new U.S. position reflects a growing frustration with China's apparent unwillingness to rein in Pyongyang, it also underscores a sense that the United States and South Korea have run out of leverage with the North and are therefore left dependent on Beijing for a solution to the security of the peninsula.
But the United States has limited ways to pressure China because its leaders know that Washington, with troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, doesn't want another war. Also, U.S. alliance building in Northeast Asia has limits because there remains significant distrust between Tokyo and Seoul.
U.S. moves so far in the region have not paid off. The Obama administration has spearheaded enhanced U.N. sanctions on the North in an attempt to squeeze its leadership and block its advanced weapons sales, and South Korea and Japan have cut their food aid to the impoverished country.
But still the North continues its troublesome behavior.
In the space of eight months, it is believed to have sunk a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors; it also has unveiled a program to enrich uranium, which is a violation of a commitment it made during talks on its nuclear weapons program five years ago. And then it shelled Yeonpyeong island, launching the first attack on civilians in South Korea since the armistice was signed.
South Korea has struggled visibly with crafting a policy to halt North Korean harassment. Its defense minister resigned after the Yeonpyeong attack. Then its new defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, threatened that South Korea's air force would bomb North Korea if it used its artillery again. But such a move might be escalatory, and it is unclear whether the United States, which retains command of all forces in the South, would agree.
The U.S. plan to pressure China has met with resistance from Beijing. China's support of North Korea, while always resolute, has gotten even stronger this year - despite some recent media reports based on leaked State Department cables that indicated that China might be ready to accept a united Korean Peninsula under the South's leadership.
Beijing has hosted the North's leader, Kim Jong Il, twice so far this year, and his third son, Kim Jong Eun, the heir apparent, once. It granted Kim the father a meeting with the full Standing Committee of the Politburo, a highly unusual honor. And it has increased its investment in and support of North Korea's economy - to ensure that North Korea does not collapse and remains a buffer state between China and the capitalist South. At the United Nations, China has also tried to suppress a report on North Korean proliferation activity.
China's attitude to the problems on the Korean Peninsula was on display Nov. 27 when its top diplomat, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, visited South Korea for talks. China, according to South Korean officials, notified South Korea 15 minutes before Dai's departure that he was headed for Seoul and that he wanted to land at a South Korean air force base that is normally reserved for heads of state. China also informed South Korea that it wanted President Lee Myung-bak's schedule cleared for an immediate meeting with Dai. The South did not agree and Dai met Lee the next day.
During that meeting, Dai essentially gave Lee "a history lesson on the relations between Beijing and Seoul" and did not mention the North Korean attack on Yeonpyeong, said a South Korean official. "He just told us to calm down," the official said. Then at the end of the meeting, as the two were readying to shake hands, Dai, off the cuff, told Lee that China wanted to call an emergency meeting of the six-party talks, grouping the United States, Japan, South Korea, Russia, China and North Korea, to help lower the heat on the peninsula. Lee told Dai that - given North Korea's actions, a meeting would be tantamount to rewarding North Korean bad behavior. But Dai ignored Lee's rejection and when Dai returned to Beijing, China's chief North Korean negotiator, Wu Dawei, announced what it framed as a bold Chinese initiative: more talks.
"The South Koreans were really ticked off," said Daniel Sneider, an expert on Asian security at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University who was in Seoul last week. "The whole way it was handled smacked of a certain kind of arrogance . . . and signaled that the Chinese weren't serious about reining in the North Koreans."
Staff writer William Branigin contributed to this report.