For nuclear zero

Print edition : August 12, 2011

It once again becomes clear that China holds the key to a denuclearised DPRK.

in Singapore

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (front left) looks at the gifts presented to him by Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang (centre), head of a Chinese delegation that attended the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance between their countries, in Pyongyang on July 12. Kim Jong-il's son Kim Jong-un stands behind him.-ZHANG LI/XINHUA/AP

CHINA'S friendly ties with its neighbour, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea), are invariably seen as a substantive geopolitical reality of East Asia. However, the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the China-DPRK Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance on July 11 was not substantially noticed in the region and beyond. Obviously, the absence of a pressing North Korean nuclear crisis on that day accounted for the rather casual global focus on the event.

Nonetheless, the China-DPRK equation will remain hugely relevant to any international search for the resolution of issues concerning North Korea's nuclear weapons programme in the present circumstances. This reality will stay relevant into the future as long as the United States has no alternative to relying heavily on Beijing's diplomatic centrality to the international quest for a denuclearised DPRK.

It was in this contemporary ambience that Chinese President Hu Jintao placed in perspective the commemoration of a five-decade-old day of great historical importance. On July 11, Hu observed that the treaty would further deepen the bilateral good neighbourly friendship and mutually beneficial cooperation that now defined China-DPRK ties. Guided by the spirit of the treaty, China and the DPRK respect each other as also support and cooperate with each other in a joint effort to advance bilateral relations, he emphasised in his conversation with the Vice-President of the Presidium of the DPRK Supreme People's Assembly, Yang Hyung-sop, in Beijing.

Bilateral friendship

President Hu said the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government attach great importance to deepening [their] strategic communication with the DPRK's ruling party and government. Carrying forward the spirit and traditions of the treaty and facing the future together, the two countries are ready to expand mutually beneficial cooperation and enhance the sharing of [their respective] experiences in governance in regard to the ruling party and the country, said the Chinese President. The prime objective, he noted, was to sustain the in-depth development of the bilateral friendship.

Reciprocating the sentiments expressed by Hu Jintao, Yang Hyung-sop said: The traditional friendship between the DPRK and China, forged and nurtured by the earlier generations of leaders on both sides, is a precious treasure cherished by the two countries. Thanks to the keen attention of such top leaders and the concerted efforts of the two countries, the DPRK-China relations have entered a new stage of development, marked by the expanding exchanges and cooperation across the board. The DPRK attaches great importance to friendly and cooperative ties and stands ready to make positive efforts with China to consolidate and develop bilateral relations and safeguard regional peace and stability.

The familiar flow of such mutual appreciation can easily lull the casual observer into missing the potential significance of the China-DPRK equation for the future of East Asia and the wider world. However, the serious observer can easily recognise two aspects of the commemoration pledges as being particularly important.

Strategic communication'

First, Hu Jintao has firmly pledged to deepen China's strategic communication with the DPRK. Evident beyond this seemingly routine statement is China's diplomatic commitment to stay attuned to the DPRK's needs in its continuing tussle with the U.S. in the widest strategic sense of relevance to all the three countries.

Second, there is more to the DPRK's reciprocal pledge than meets the eye. Pyongyang stands ready to make positive efforts with China... to safeguard regional peace and stability. Implicit in this commitment is the continuing willingness of the DPRK's leader, Kim Jong-il, to let China lead the process of setting terms for regional peace and stability. Such a reading flows from the DPRK's overall dependence on China since the 1950-53 Korean War. Another compelling fact in this sub-context is that the wider international community, inclusive of the U.S., has in recent years ceded space to China to lead the efforts to denuclearise North Korea. In view of these facts, it is possible to visualise a potential scenario in which China will bring its global responsibilities into play even while helping the DPRK achieve its own version of peace and stability.

YANG HYUNG-SOP, VICE-PRESIDENT of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly of North Korea. He visited Beijing on July 11.-CHINA DAILY/REUTERS

A truly creative formula, in the thinking of this correspondent, will be possible in a scenario in which China can depart from its strategic practices, if it so chooses, and offer its nuclear umbrella to a truly denuclearised DPRK. If China does choose this option, such a dramatic move will be in tune with the current practices of the U.S., which has unfurled its nuclear umbrellas over Japan and South Korea.

Both Japan and South Korea do not possess atomic arsenals of their own. And, China can perhaps decide to offer its distinctive nuclear umbrella to DPRK only after the latter is fully denuclearised under the multilateral process, which is now led by China itself.

In such a futuristic scenario, not at all on the diplomatic cards as of now, a fully denuclearised DPRK can feel reassured of its security in the context of perceived threats from the U.S. and its allies.

And, the larger international community, too, can heave a sigh of relief over such a possible outcome which, in this scenario, will be the result of negotiations among the relevant parties the two Koreas, China, the U.S., Japan and Russia. Right now, China chairs the six-party negotiations for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

During the six-party talks and on the sidelines, the DPRK has often argued that the U.S. nuclear weapons on South Korean territory should also be removed forever. The counterpoint from the U.S. is that its policy of providing allies with nuclear umbrellas does no longer necessitate the actual positioning of atomic weapons on South Korean territory.

If, therefore, Beijing does choose to protect a denuclearised Pyongyang under a Chinese nuclear umbrella, there will be no need to place any of China's atomic weapons on the territory of a non-nuclear DPRK.

Three factors will, in the final analysis, determine the fate of this idea.

First, it will entirely be China's call. From its standpoint, a denuclearised DPRK may not at all require Chinese nuclear cover if the U.S. were to pull back its nuclear protection for Japan and South Korea. However, these two allies of the U.S. have China itself on their minds in wanting to retain the American nuclear umbrella over their countries.

Closely related to this subtext is the second factor. The DPRK has been generally unwilling to give up its sovereign autonomy over strategic affairs. This aspect has often clouded its strategic dependence on China. Pyongyang's latest pledge to make positive efforts in association with Beijing should, therefore, be tested against this sensitive reality as well.

The new international campaign for a world without atomic weapons is the last but not the least factor of direct relevance to the fate of the idea of a Chinese nuclear umbrella for a denuclearised DPRK. Interminable, as of now, are the competitive debates on the idea of nuclear zero. A school of thought advocates a pragmatic world that will have credible safeguards against national atomic arsenals that cannot be de-invented.

Gathering pace, in these circumstances, is a visionary campaign for a truly sane nuclear-weapons-free global order. The yearning for a world without nuclear weapons knows no national boundaries.

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