Since the North Korean nuclear crisis began in October 2002, Washington has believed that China is the key to solving the problem. The Bush administration has indicated repeatedly that it expects the PRC to exert whatever diplomatic and economic pressure is needed to get North Korea to abandon her nuclear ambitions. From time to time, frustration has surfaced in Washington that China has not done more to pressure her neighbor. Robert Joseph, under secretary of state for arms control and international security, has perhaps been the most direct, saying that the administration believes “China can do more to get [the North Koreans] to eliminate their nuclear weapons program.” He observed that Beijing had “a number of tools” to use to influence Pyongyang and warned that, if China did not act more forcefully, “there possibly could be very significant consequences for U.S.-Chinese relations.”

Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, has been a little more oblique than Joseph in his criticism. Responding to a question from Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hill said, “I agree with you that China has been reluctant to use the full range of leverage that we believe China has.” The annual report of the U.S-China Economic and Security Review Commission, issued in November 2005, expresses similar complaints.

Some hawks outside the Bush administration go beyond just assuming that Beijing has failed to use the leverage it has to get North Korea to give up its quest for nuclear weapons. They charge that China is in league with the North Koreans and would not mind seeing a nuclear-armed North Korea. Former congressional staffer William C. Triplett II states bluntly that “the idea that Beijing shares our desire for a nuclear weapons free Korean Peninsula is nothing more than a dangerous self-delusion.” Triplett alleges further that, if the Chinese “disapproved of North Korea’s WMD activities, they could end them with a telephone call.”

Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, offers an interpretation of Beijing’s conduct that is only a shade less caustic and conspiratorial:

China’s actions have fallen between offering begrudging help and doing outright harm. In North Korea, China possesses vastly greater influence than it modestly claims and could, if it wished, bring far greater pressure on a regime that would in all likelihood be unable to survive without China’s support and the unobstructed transit of food and fuel across their shared border. And yet despite repeated requests, China has brought only the mildest pressure to bear on Pyongyang, and with very limited results. Frustrating the United States in its efforts and entangling it indefinitely may have its attractions to Beijing, but the result has been to allow and even encourage a dangerous and unpredictable regime to progress in its deadly efforts.

Although most examples of such accusations come from conservatives, that is not universally true. Liberal New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman sounds very much like Triplett and Hyde in his assessment of Beijing’s role:

North Korea’s nuclear program could be stopped tomorrow by the country that provides half of North Korea’s energy and one-third of its food supplies—and that is China. All China has to say to Kim Jong Il is “You will shut down your nuclear weapons program and put all of your reactors under international inspection, or we will turn off your lights, cut off your heat, and put your whole country on a diet. Have we made ourselves clear?” One thing we know about China—it knows how to play hard-ball when it wants to, and if China ever played hardball that way with North Korea, the proliferation threat from Pyongyang would be over.

Such criticism contains at most a kernel of truth. Beijing may not be overly upset that Pyongyang’s behavior discomfits the United States and allows China to play the role as essential diplomatic broker in the region. Some Chinese officials also may be enjoying how the North Korean issue has sowed dissension in the U.S.-South Korean relationship. If Seoul begins to loosen its close ties with the United States, China is likely to be the principal beneficiary. (Given the historical Korean antipathy toward Japan, South Korea is unlikely to look to that country as a substitute for her partnership with the United States.)

Most evidence suggests, however, that, while China may not be above fishing in troubled waters, Beijing is not eager to see nuclear weapons introduced on the Korean peninsula. Among other drawbacks, such a development would increase the chance that Japan would respond by building a deterrent of her own, and a nuclear-armed Japan is the last thing China wants to see.

Contrary to the expressions of impatience coming from U.S. officials—and decidedly contrary to the conspiracy theories peddled by those who contend that Beijing is facilitating North Korea’s nuclear ambitions—China has played a reasonably constructive role in trying to resolve the crisis. Indeed, Beijing has abandoned its usual pattern of diplomatic caution in international affairs and has displayed a virtually unprecedented degree of activism on this issue. Moreover, what progress has occurred (and, admittedly, it has been quite modest) is largely the result of the PRC’s patient initiatives.

Until the spring of 2003, Pyongyang had adamantly insisted on bilateral talks with the United States despite the U.S. insistence on a multilateral format. North Korea finally broke the diplomatic impasse in early April, dropping her demand for one-on-one negotiations with the United States. It appears that it was pressure from Beijing that induced Pyongyang to give up its insistence on bilateral talks. The talks that opened in the Chinese capital later that month were actually closer to the format that North Korea wanted than the comprehensive, six-nation format the United States was pushing. Although the Beijing negotiations were technically trilateral (North Korea, the United States, and the PRC), the Chinese acted more as hosts and moderators than as full-fledged parties to the proceedings.

In any event, the talks did not turn out well. Indeed, the sessions degenerated into little more than an exchange of already familiar demands by the two sides, with the Chinese uncomfortably caught in the middle. The acrimony culminated when the North Korean delegation reportedly informed their American counterparts that the DPRK already had nuclear weapons and was prepared to test them or sell them to other parties if the United States did not back away from her threatening, confrontational policy. The talks ended after three days with no visible signs of progress. Although the Chinese tried their best to portray the outcome in a reasonably favorable light, it was clear that the negotiations had not brought the crisis much closer to resolution.

The PRC did not abandon her diplomatic efforts, however. China continued to pressure North Korea to agree to a new round of multilateral talks, and, in July, Pyongyang finally relented. According to journalist Willy Wo-Lap Lam, PRC President Hu Jintao made it clear that Pyongyang must dismantle its nuclear-weapons program, or Beijing’s ability—and willingness—to aid its neighbor’s ailing economy would be severely hampered. The Chinese president also indicated that, as much as he and other officials valued China’s traditional close ties with Pyongyang, Beijing had no realistic choice but to work with the international community to ensure the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Sources told Lam that Hu’s “near ultimatum” was a key factor in Kim Jong Il’s decision to return to the negotiating table.

The new round of talks took place in Beijing at the end of August, and, this time, they were six-party talks involving Japan, South Korea, and Russia as well as North Korea, the United States, and China. Responding to the PRC’s lobbying, Washington made a limited concession, agreeing that “informal” bilateral discussions between U.S. and DPRK diplomats could take place within the context of the multilateral negotiations.

The initial round of the six-party talks merely produced another impasse. North Korea again threatened to test a nuclear weapon if the United States did not change her negotiating posture. The U.S. delegation indicated that it was not about to respond to a campaign of blackmail. About the only achievement at the talks was an agreement to meet again at some unspecified point in the future, although days later Pyongyang cast doubt on whether even that meager result would hold. Predictably, North Korea and the United States blamed each other for the lack of progress. Beijing seemed to place most of the blame at Washington’s doorstep. Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who had been China’s chief negotiator at the talks, stated bluntly: “America’s policy toward the DPRK—that is the main problem we are facing.”

China continued to prod both Washington and Pyongyang to be more flexible. And those hopes seemed to be rewarded when President Bush unexpectedly offered a proposal to break the diplomatic impasse. During his trip to East Asia in late October 2003, he indicated that the United States would be willing to guarantee North Korea’s security if Pyongyang gave up its nuclear program. Although the new U.S. proposal fell short of North Korea’s demand for a bilateral, binding nonaggression pact with the United States, it went at least part way toward meeting Pyongyang’s concerns on that issue. Yet the DPRK’s initial reaction was dismissive, with North Korea’s official news agency denouncing President Bush’s initiative as “laughable.”

Once again, PRC diplomats went into action. After some rather intense discussions with Chinese officials, the North Koreans altered their attitude. Pyongyang agreed to take part in a new round of six-party talks, and it indicated that it would consider Bush’s offer of a written multilateral security pledge, although the DPRK also stressed that a security pledge was merely one component of a number of actions it expected from the United States in exchange for renouncing its nuclear program.

The second round of six-party talks in February 2004 again produced little progress. Washington and Pyongyang did little more than restate their long-standing positions. At the third round in June 2004, though, there was some movement on the U.S. side. The American delegation (at the urging of the Chinese, South Korean, and Japanese governments) offered a reasonably detailed proposal for ending North Korea’s nuclear program. The proposal called for a North Korean declaration, committing the DPRK to a complete, verifiable, and irreversible end to its entire nuclear program, including all plutonium production and uranium-enrichment activities. The elimination of all components of North Korea’s nuclear program was to begin after a three-month preparatory period. In exchange, non-U.S. parties to the talks would provide North Korea with heavy fuel oil for her energy needs and, once North Korea’s declaration proved credible, all parties would provide the DPRK with multilateral security assurances. As the denuclearization process proceeded, other benefits (including discussions about lifting U.S. economic sanctions) would begin to take place.

Beijing was optimistic that North Korea would soon respond to the U.S. proposal. Indeed, the PRC repeatedly urged her neighbor to provide a constructive response. China’s optimism that a new round of talks would take place before the end of 2004 proved to be unfounded, as were the hopes that the DPRK would respond to the U.S. offer. Eventually, Chinese leaders accepted the reality that Pyongyang would not make a move until after the U.S. presidential election, when the North Koreans would know whether they would have to deal with a second Bush administration. Beijing did seem to believe, however, that the DPRK would rejoin the negotiating process once the U.S. political picture was clarified.

That expectation proved unfounded as well. Whether the North Koreans intended to return to the six-party talks in early 2005 is uncertain. Whatever chance there was of such a return disappeared when incoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice referred to the DPRK as one of the world’s “outposts of tyranny.” From Beijing’s standpoint, such rhetoric was unhelpful, and the Chinese government conveyed that view to Washington, repeatedly urging American officials to use “softer language.” Chinese frustration with both the United States and North Korea probably reached a pinnacle when Pyongyang announced in February that it had a nuclear deterrent and had no intention of returning to the six-party talks.

Although the PRC remained annoyed with the Bush administration’s hostile characterization of the North Korean regime as a tyranny, Chinese patience regarding her ally was wearing thin as well. A clear indication of that development occurred right after Pyongyang’s February announcement. State-run Chinese media were unusually negative regarding North Korea’s conduct. National television news on state-run CCTV gave heavy coverage to international condemnation of North Korea and demands that she return to the six-party talks. Conversely, little effort was made to explain the DPRK’s position that she needed nuclear weapons to deter the United States.

Beijing spent the next several months pressing Kim Jong Il’s government to reverse its decision not to participate in another round of talks. At least partly in response to Washington’s growing complaints, Beijing gradually ratcheted up the pressure on its recalcitrant ally. The culmination apparently came in early July, when North Korea responded to the PRC’s repeated calls and agreed to a new round of talks later that month.

Those negotiations lasted far longer (13 days) than any of the previous rounds, and Beijing worked mightily to get the participants to sign a joint statement outlining their points of agreement, at least in principle. When that initial effort ran into difficulty, the talks recessed for three weeks so that the various capitals could fully assess the ideas that had been put forth. When the talks resumed after the recess, China’s efforts to bridge the gap between Washington’s and Pyongyang’s positions paid off—at least in the short run. The parties signed a “joint statement of principles.” The North Korean government formally committed to eliminating its nuclear-weapons program, returning to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty(from which it had withdrawn in early 2003), and authorizing the return of international inspectors. The United States and the other parties agreed to a formula of “commitment for commitment and action for action,” pledging to resume energy aid to North Korea and to commence the process of normalizing political and economic relations between Washington and Pyongyang as North Korea took steps to dismantle her nuclear-weapons program in stages.

A statement of principles is a mildly encouraging initial step, but it is a long way from a detailed, enforceable agreement for the end of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and it remains uncertain how much pressure Beijing will be willing to use to get its troublesome ally to fulfill its new commitments. Although every rational person hopes that the six-party talks eventually produce a settlement defusing the North Korean nuclear crisis, optimists may be overrating both Beijing’s willingness and ability to get North Korea to remain nonnuclear.

True, China does have significant economic leverage over the DPRK. A major portion of North Korea’s annual energy supplies, approximately 30 percent of her total outside assistance, and an estimated 38 percent of her imports come from China. But Beijing has been reluctant to use this leverage throughout the crisis. Indeed, the PRC clearly prefers to use carrots rather than sticks on the nuclear issue. During an October visit to North Korea, Hu Jintao reportedly offered an additional $2.1 billion in aid if there was further progress in the nuclear talks as a result of actions taken by Pyongyang.

The evidence suggests that Chinese leaders may be willing to exert some diplomatic, and perhaps even economic, pressure on North Korea to keep the peninsula nonnuclear. A revealing example came in late August 2004, when China’s top energy official stated that the PRC could not contemplate cooperating with North Korea in the field of atomic energy because of the crisis over the latter’s nuclear-weapons program. “We will not consider it because we are in favor of the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula,” said Zhang Huashu, chairman of the China Atomic Energy Authority. To realize the goal of denuclearization, Zhang emphasized, “China must play an active part, so there is no discussion of cooperating with North Korea now.” It is likely that North Korea was both surprised and unhappy about Beijing’s position.

China, in fact, has insisted almost from the beginning of the crisis that she has been working hard on the issue through quiet diplomacy. But that position illustrates an important point. China sees herself as an intermediary between the United States and North Korea, not as Washington’s partner in a campaign of isolation and coercion. For example, China has repeatedly urged the United States to negotiate with Pyongyang without preconditions.

Bush-administration officials have noted that the Chinese have worked “as intermediaries,” not as a U.S. partner in the negotiating process, and both U.S. policymakers and members of the American foreign-policy community have shown increasing discontent with Beijing’s role as an intermediary. Jon Wolfsthal, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, expressed that dissatisfaction succinctly: “In the six-party talks, Washington needs China to be more than an honest broker, but become a forceful advocate for North Korean nuclear disarmament.” In October 2004, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage bluntly told a Chinese official that China needed to view herself not as a mediator but as a participant in the effort against North Korea, according to a U.S. official familiar with the conversation. Vice President Dick Cheney sounded a similar theme: “The Chinese need to understand that it’s incumbent upon them to be major players in the disarmament process.”

That may be expecting more than the PRC is willing or able to give. Maintaining the nonnuclear status quo on the peninsula appears to be a significant Chinese objective. Among other drawbacks, a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons would increase the chance that other countries in East Asia would respond by building deterrents of their own. Such a development would threaten important Chinese interests. Although Beijing might be able to live with a nuclear-armed South Korea, Chinese leaders would have to fear that Japan (and perhaps even Taiwan) would follow suit. Either development would be anathema to the PRC.

Yet, although keeping the Korean peninsula nonnuclear seems to be an important objective for the PRC, it is not the highest priority. Beijing’s top priority is to preserve the North Korean state as a buffer between China and the U.S. sphere of influence in Northeast Asia. As North Korea’s economy has languished in recent years, resulting in mass famine, China has worried that the North Korean regime might implode, much like the East German system did in 1989. Such a development would lead to the sudden emergence on China’s border of a unified Korea allied with the United States—probably with a continuing U.S. troop presence. A North Korean collapse might also lead to a massive flow of refugees into China—with all the attendant social and economic dislocations. As two prominent experts on East Asia note: “To guard against this event [China] will ultimately allow fuel and food (sanctioned or unsanctioned) to move across its border with the North.”

Moreover, as far as diplomatic influence is concerned, the United States tends to overrate Beijing’s clout. China may be North Korea’s closest ally, but the North Korean elite is not especially fond of China. In addition to the wariness with which a small state typically regards a much-larger neighbor, Pyongyang considers the Beijing government a communist apostate for its extensive flirtation with market-oriented economic reforms and its tolerance of a considerable amount of social pluralism for the Chinese people. New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof concludes, “China’s influence on North Korea has always been wildly exaggerated. North Koreans speak openly of their contempt for Chinese officials.”

At the very least, U.S. officials (and Americans in general) need to adopt a more realistic attitude about the extent of Beijing’s influence over Pyongyang. Washington is making a mistake if it expects China to sacrifice other important interests to get the DPRK to abandon its quest to become a nuclear-weapons state. China has sought to dissuade North Korea from going further down that path, and Beijing will likely continue to be helpful in attempting to defuse the crisis. It is possible that Kim’s regime may push even its indulgent Chinese ally too far. A North Korean nuclear test, for example, might force Beijing’s hand, despite the risks entailed in adopting coercive measures toward Pyongyang.

It is more likely, however, that the PRC will accept a nuclear-armed North Korea rather than put so much pressure on its neighbor that it risks seeing the regime unravel. That may not be a pleasant realization for U.S. policymakers, but it is better than indulging in the illusion that Beijing will do whatever is necessary to deliver a nonnuclear North Korea.