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Korean showdown exposes China-US gap: analysts
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Dec 22, 2010

The tense weekend showdown on the Korean peninsula exposes the deep US-China gap over how to resolve a long-simmering crisis that risks erupting anew, analysts said.

Nevertheless, several experts suspected China helped to defuse the immediate crisis by privately warning its neighbor and nuclear-armed ally North Korea to avoid acting on its threat to retaliate for South Korean military drills.

"The Chinese were very concerned about escalation, even to the point of a widescale war on the peninsula," said Bonnie Glaser, a China analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The fact that they were so worried about a military conflict may have in fact energized them to do more than they have under other circumstances, and urge the North Koreans not to retaliate," Glaser told AFP.

And the North Koreans may have decided to hold fire for now only to consider staging a show of military force in the future, she said.

For Glaser, who has advised US administrations, there would be no contradiction between China's intervening with North Korea and blocking efforts at the UN Security Council to agree to a statement on the Korea crisis.

The Chinese, diplomats at the United Nations said, blocked Western attempts to condemn North Korea's November 23 artillery attack on a South Korean island which killed four people and set off the new tensions.

Beijing, Glaser said, sees the tough stand taken by Washington and Seoul as breeding instability.

"They (the Chinese) want North Korea to be restrained and they want the South to be restrained," Glaser said.

"They also don't want to put too much pressure on North Korea via the UN because they worry that could provoke North Korea to engage in more destabilizing action," she said.

Evan Feigenbaum, a former US State Department official, told AFP in an exchange of emails that Beijing "surely used (private) channels to tell Pyongyang to knock it off."

In addition, Pyongyang "accomplished its objective of humiliating" South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, and of "keeping Seoul off balance," said the Asia analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Third, he said, "North Korea's threats of future attack remain credible," and its decision to hold fire in the face of South Korean war games, "would in no way suggest to Seoul or Washington that Pyongyang has 'gone soft.'"

Both Feigenbaum and Douglas Paal, another Asia expert who suspects China had a "big role" in prompting the North to back down, thinks Pyongyang will hold off until Chinese President Hu Jintao visits Washington next month.

"Hu Jintao wants to come to the US in January and not spend his whole time on his state visit talking about North Korea," said Paal, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace executive who has served in past US administrations.

The North Koreans "have every incentive to get back to brinksmanship as soon as they can," Paal told AFP.

"And my guess is they will wait a month after Hu Jintao's visit and resume that kind of activity in order to try to get the US to accept talking to them on terms that are beneficial to North Korea," he added.

But the United States differientiates between talks -- which they hold from time to time with North Korean diplomats at the United Nations in New York -- and direct negotiations.

Washington is neither willing to engage North Korea in direct talks nor in the six-party nuclear disarmament talks chaired by China as long as North Korea fails to stop its "provocations" and show it is serious about nuclear talks.

China, on the other hand, wants the United States and North Korea to settle their differences together, Paal said. "I think we're basically talking past each other most of the time."

Bruce Klingner, who worked at the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency, attributed the North Korean decision not to retaliate to the firm stand taken by South Korea and the United States.

"Alternatively, it may have been that North Korea never intended to attack South Korea in a predictable manner," Klingner said, leaving open the possibility it will still strike at a time and place of its chosing.

"I don't think China played a role," he said. "They have shown themselves to be more a part of the problem than a part of the solution."


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