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China Leaves the Sidelines to Lead N. Korea Talks

Times Staff Writers

Diplomats from six nations formally convened Wednesday to discuss how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, with China seeking to lead in the intricate diplomatic dance.

Participants in the three days of talks here doubt that there will be a major breakthrough, and some say the best news may be simply an agreement to talk again. If there is progress, it could be because of China’s active role in bringing the parties together and its pronouncements in many official forums in recent days that the crisis can be resolved.

China’s chief official at the talks, Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi, has been an energetic host, greeting diplomats at the door of the Diaoyutai State Guest House and shepherding them around for photographs and staged handshakes before they took their places at a hexagonal table.

More substantively, Wang encouraged a side meeting between American and North Korean officials, although it was brief and inconclusive, and he has said in interviews this week that China believes the major goals expressed by the participants can be met: that North Korea can win guarantees of its security while the United States and other countries can gain guarantees that North Korea will be “denuclearized.”

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China’s prominent role in the diplomacy here by no means assures success, and Wang and other Chinese officials have taken pains to discourage expectations of an immediate deal from this round of talks, which also includes negotiators from South Korea, Japan and Russia.

Still, after many months in which Beijing seemed to take a sideline view of the matter and showed no signs of using its considerable leverage in food and oil supplies over the North Koreans, many experts both here and abroad say the Chinese leaders seem much more intent on pushing for a resolution.

“Getting the Chinese to take ownership of this process has been very important, maybe even critical to knowing if there’s a diplomatic way out of this,” said Richard Bush, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “They have come to realize their own national security interests are at stake. It’s not just a Korean problem, not just an American problem, it’s a Chinese problem.

“Having said that,” Bush added, “what they have been involved in so far is just creating a process, and just having a process doesn’t guarantee you’re going to get good results.”

China’s history with North Korea is tangled, and relations are changing fast. Chinese leaders once saw North Korea as an immensely pliant fellow Communist state, one that was indebted to Beijing not only for food and fuel but for the fact that China suffered at least a million casualties fighting for the North during the Korean War in the early 1950s.

But even the Chinese now seem to view North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Il, as an erratic rogue state that is no longer a puppet but instead a drain on China, especially with an economy so dysfunctional that hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are trying desperately to slip across the border into China. And in a final straw, some Chinese businesspeople and government officials who have visited the North report that there have been systematic actions by officials in some places to remove memorials in honor of the Chinese who died fighting for the country.

Given all this, the Chinese want North Korea to make a deal, one that ensures it gets rid of its nuclear weapons and that perhaps yields some aid to help recharge its ailing economy. That helps to explain why China has taken a much more forceful diplomatic role in the matter than it had in the past.

“This is a very tremendous change of China’s diplomacy in an international context,” said Zhu Feng, a specialist in security matters at Beijing University’s School of International Studies. “I think previously China was neutral in these disputes. It sort of seemed like it was trying to stay out.”

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Now Chinese leaders are not exactly taking sides, Zhu said, “but they are very positively engaged in trying to mediate for the different sides, trying to be a bridge.”

Still, he and other government-sponsored scholars here dampen expectations that Chinese negotiators might have showed up at the talks with a definite deal in mind. Rather, they say, China wants to keep everybody talking, at least for a while.

“In its role as coordinator, China wants there to be a good atmosphere for discussion. It doesn’t want to see that broken,” said Piao Jianyi, executive director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Issues Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “China is a bridge in these talks, but it’s not going to propose a solution at every corner.”

Another looming question is just how much pressure China is willing to put on the North Koreans to make a deal. If Beijing withholds food, fuel or other supplies, it could force Kim to come to terms -- or it could simply spark chaos and even collapse in the Stalinist state.

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“The most interesting position is the Chinese: They will say publicly that they want to settle this through negotiations, but what really is their game plan?” said Kim Kyong Won, a former South Korean ambassador to the United States. “Are they prepared to suspend aid, food and energy to North Korea?

“That’s the wild card.”

Many experts think that China is almost at the point where it prefers a collapsed North Korean state to a nuclear-armed one. But it would rather not have to make that choice.

“China is correctly concerned about the potential consequences of playing hardball,” said Bush of the Brookings Institution. “Either the process could get out of control, in ways that nobody would want, or this might be the thing that brings down this very brittle structure, which is something the Chinese don’t want.

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“There will be people who say, ‘Oh, the house of cards should come down,’ ” Bush added. “But we in the United States are far away, it’s reasonable to accept that the Chinese are going to have a different outlook on leverage and its consequences. What we all want is use of leverage that gets good results.”

In any event, other countries see China’s role -- and potential use of leverage -- as critical.

The South Korean government, which has been trying unsuccessfully for months to bring the United States and North Korea together, now has great expectations that China will succeed where it has failed.

“We’re expecting that the Chinese might play some important role in bridging the gaps,” a South Korean diplomat in Seoul said Wednesday. “The Chinese are doing very well so far.”

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Moreover, even though its relations with leader Kim have been strained, China probably has more influence over him than does any other country.

Kim Sung Ho, a South Korean assemblyman who was in Pyongyang, the North’s capital, last week and met with North Korean officials, said China’s role in the talks came up.

“I got the impression that they are listening closely to what China has to say,” the lawmaker said. “I also got the impression that they are coming to the meeting through the advice and urging of China.”

Verhovek reported from Beijing and Demick from Seoul.

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