"Pundita! I'm completely confused about policy coming out of Washington. Okay, so Dick Cheney told Larry King that China is the key to pressuring North Korea, but the New York Times reported that senior officials in Washington no longer think China is the key! It's like the White House has a split personality when it comes to China or maybe it's just the battles between the State Department and the Pentagon but anyhow [US] policy on North Korea reminds me of The Three Faces of Eve.
Sleepless Again in St. Louis"
Remember that the CIA favors The New York Times as a voicebox. Before we continue, I'll quote the passage in the Times report that vexes you:
In a change that reflects a failure of the present policy, some officials say they will no longer rely heavily on China to sway the North Koreans. Ms. Rice met with China's leaders in Beijing in March specifically to ask them to pressure North Korea. That pressure has continued. But senior officials say they now realize that China may never be willing to use its leverage over North Korea, which relies on China for much of its food, energy and other resources.I don't know exactly when Cheney taped his interview with Larry King, which was aired May 31, but if I recall it was on May 29 that CNN published a partial transcript of the interview, which featured Cheney's remarks about China. The New York Times report you mention was published on May 30, but you can be sure that the White House had advance notice of the report.
So Cheney's remarks to King were most probably to offset the impression fostered by the NYT report that the White House was backing off from putting pressure on China with regard to North Korea.
If you're still confused I think the distinction is between types of pressure--military and diplomatic. The Pentagon sending stealth bombers to South Korea is a distinctly different kind of pressure on Beijing than Rice asking Beijing to pressure North Korea into returning to the six party talks.
Realize that the party is over for Beijing. For decades, the US relied on clandestine intelligence gathering to learn what was going on with China. The rationale for intel gathering, of the pussyfoot nature, is that you can't just ask a head of state what's going on and expect to receive a straight answer.
But there's nothing like a superpower using military force to topple a regime and military interdictions of shipments on the high seas to make pussyfooting unnecessary. To put this another way, Pervez Musharraf and Moammar al-Ghadafi have been singing like a bird to the US military high command.
This sort of thing is catching. For decades China had a free run because they knew it was politically incorrect for any national leader to bring the truth to Washington about Beijing. But now that it's widely known that the White House is all ears, everybody's on a talking jag.
In short the Pentagon now has a pile of evidence, as versus 'intelligence,' on China's activities to promote nuclear proliferation in North Korea and several other small countries.
However, the Pentagon's clearer view of China comes late in the day. South Korea and China have found common ground in their opposition to Japan. And the south has found common ground with the north in Korea. United States policy toward North Korea has studiously avoided taking into account the sea changes.
One can spend time wrangling over how to approach China with regard to North Korea. Or one can take the sea changes into account then ask Seoul, "What do you want?"
The truth is that Seoul is unclear on what they want. On the one hand they want reunification with the north. On the other hand they fear that reunification will overwhelm their society with North Koreans. And they are naturally reluctant to share power with any part of the north's governing apparatus. On the one hand, they say that they are inclined to believe the carrot approach works to keep Kim's regime at bay. On the other hand, they set up a howl when the US military announced a troop reduction in South Korea; Seoul lobbied to get the reduction slowed down.
The lack of clarity from Seoul parallels the lack of clarity from the US side. Even a child could realize there is something screwy about asking a dictatorship to talk sense to another dictatorship on behalf of a democracy. Beijing has no place in the six party talks; they should never been vested with the power to negotiate in any way on behalf of the USA. To say that this is not what was intended--that the US simply wanted China to negotiate according to their best interests--is disingenuous. The US sent a thug to talk another thug out of being a thug.
Now one might argue that talk about reunification has nothing to do with the immediate "crisis" with regard to Kim's nuclear/chemical/biological weapons programs. However, the US has been futzing around for close to two decades about Kim's weapons program. So now Washington sees a crisis. Okay, but let's say Pyongyang's nuke facilities are bombed tomorrow and Kim falls down dead. Then what?
The US should have been working hard for at least the past decade on reunification-- working with Seoul on how to make reunification feasible. This would have given clear direction and support to the faction in Pyongyang that wants to unseat Kim Jong-il and bring about peaceful reunification with the south.
What's been the obstacle to this approach? Pundita doesn't know but it's probably a combination of factors at work. Reunification would mean that a united Korea has nuclear weapons inherited from the North. I doubt that Japan would like that situation. And a united Korea might not be so willing to give up nukes if the greatest rationale for getting rid of them -- Kim's despotic regime -- is removed.
In any case, such questions need careful attention and hard work sorting out. As for Kim and his weapons program--well, he's not going to give up the program and he can't allow reunification on any terms but his, which means putting south Korea under his control. He simply can't stay in power, once many north Koreans learn the details of his rule and he knows this.
Meanwhile, Beijing is playing for huge stakes in Asia and on the world stage. So it's not worth it to Beijing to draw a line in the sand about propping up Kim's regime. Kim knows this, so he's playing Seoul against Beijing in dealings with the USA.
If American readers groan that they're hearing Pundita suggest a checkbook be opened -- I'd say that before money must come clarity. South Korea does have a Reunification Ministry. It's anyone's guess how much concrete discussion they've had with the World Bank-IMF and Asian Development Bank about financing reunification. But if you move toward a fuzzy goal you'll follow fuzz, which is no help as a guide. And fuzzy is no help to any faction in Pyongyang that's looking for direction on how peaceful reunification could be managed.
As to how China would see a united Korea with nukes and the combined military strength of north and south, I doubt they'd jump for joy. Where is Pundita's Kleenex box, so we can have a good cry over the prospect of China's discomfort.
Good background on the present Korea situation:
James Brooke's For Koreas, an industrial union in the International Herald Tribune; the report is about South Korea's investment in the north's Kaesong Industrial Park. Despite its date (October 2004) this article contains highly relevant information. Please note mention of South Korea's fear that the US would try to sabotage the broadened partnership between the two Koreas.
And if you missed it, see Brooke's June 2 report for the New York Times (via the Inrternational Herald Tribune on Korea's current food crisis. Note the mention that North Korea is making counterfeit Viagra. It would be interesting to know which government or crime syndicate set up the factory in North Korea for making a counterfeit pharmaceutical. That line of crime sounds a departure from North Korea's usual contraband exports.
See also a rare and recent 'inside North Korea' report filed with the Christian Science Monitor (June 2), On North Korea's streets, pink and tangerine buses.