South Korea dispatched an envoy to Beijing today in a bid to persuade China to increase pressure on North Korea to pull back from restarting a nuclear reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.
Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Tae Shik arrived in Beijing and declared his confidence that escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula can be eased through peaceful means, saying in an interview with Reuters television that he had been sent "to exchange our views with Chinese officials on how to find a constructive way out of this nuclear stalemate." Lee plans to meet Thursday with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
The Bush administration, focused on a looming war with Iraq and aware that any war here would likely devastate South Korea, has embraced diplomacy, backed by economic pressure, as the best means of persuading North Korea not to revive its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. "I view the North Korean situation as one that can be resolved peacefully through diplomacy," President Bush said on Tuesday.
The administration has expressed hope that depriving North Korea of aid and trade links with the rest of the world would persuade its leaders to reverse course. But without full support from China, any program of economic strictures would not have much effect, according to experts. China and North Korea fought together during the Korean War and remain self-described Communist allies, despite China's embrace of free-market reforms over the past two decades. China is North Korea's largest source of food and fuel.
"Enforcing economic sanctions against North Korea would be very difficult," said Oh Seung Ryeol, an economist at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a research group affiliated with the South Korean government. "North Korea can always find a way to import through China."
Since North Korea's decision last month to restart the reactor, followed by its move last week to expel inspectors from the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, China has sent mixed messages about how it plans to respond.
Beijing has expressed concern about its neighbor having violated its commitments under a 1994 deal with the Clinton administration to forsake nuclear weapons production in exchange for fuel shipments and the construction of two light-water reactors to generate electricity, a deal that China largely brokered. But China's official media have also printed denunciations of the United States' confrontational stance, and blamed the Bush administration for provoking the crisis by cutting off aid.
Experts say Beijing's ambivalence is probably genuine because the crisis has presented China with a conflict. China adamantly wants to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear power, which could sow destabilizing consequences throughout the region, perhaps prompting its neighbors to develop their own nuclear weapons. At the same time, Beijing is loath to support measures that could further weaken North Korea's moribund economy, which would increase the flow of refugees into China.
"No Chinese government wants to see North Korea go down," said Lee Chung Min, a regional security expert at Yonsei University in Seoul. "They will do anything they can to prop the regime up."
South Korea has also resisted the Bush administration's hard-line approach, even as it expresses grave concerns about North Korea's actions. President Kim Dae Jung, who turns over power next month to a newly elected president, has pursued a "sunshine policy" that emphasizes engagement and reconciliation with the North.
On Monday, Kim blasted the Bush administration's emphasis on containment as antiquated, Cold War thinking. Today, in his final New Year's message, Kim called on South Korea to make use of a historic opportunity to resolve the conflict that has separated the two halves of the Korean Peninsula for a half-century.
"We can help resolve the North Korean nuclear problem and make peace take root on the Korean Peninsula," Kim said.
North Korea has been keen to encourage the disagreement between Seoul and Washington. In its New Year's message today, the Pyongyang government urged South Koreans to back its confrontation with the United States, news services reported. "It can be said that there exists on the Korean Peninsula at present only confrontation between the Koreans in the North and the South and the United States," the North Korean statement said.
"It is an urgent national task to avert the danger of war and preserve peace on the Korean Peninsula at present," the message said, accusing the United States of preparing to launch a "preemptive nuclear attack."
In Europe, the Bush administration has gained a measure of endorsement for its stiff posture.
A spokesman for the British Foreign Ministry said economic strictures had to be considered by world leaders, following threats from North Korea that it might withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of world efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
"We believe that North Korea must meet its obligations from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, including allowing the weapons inspectors," the spokesman said Tuesday on condition of anonymity, according to the Associated Press. "We have said that we want to work for a peaceful resolution. Obviously some form of economic pressure has to be an option."