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China looks ahead to Korea crisis

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam
CNN Senior Chia Analyst

Hu (R) and Jiang: N. Korea will likely pose one of their first major diplomatic challenges
Hu (R) and Jiang: N. Korea will likely pose one of their first major diplomatic challenges

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(CNN) -- The Chinese leadership, which expects Washington to take on Pyongyang by the summer, is adopting multi-pronged measures to defuse the North Korea crisis.

Yet the new foreign policy team headed by President Hu Jintao is aware Beijing faces an uphill battle to prevent a potential diplomatic -- and military -- disaster at China's doorsteps.

China's anxiety was reflected by the formation earlier this month of the secretive Leading Group on the North Korean Crisis (LGNKC), which is headed by Hu.

Former president Jiang Zemin, who still wields tremendous influence in security and military affairs, has indicated Beijing must devote more resources to the Korean Peninsula because time is running short.

Jiang, Hu and their advisers are convinced the U.S. will target Pyongyang soon after resolving the Iraqi problem.

Jiang and Hu expect Washington to use tough tactics against the Kim Jong-il regime -- perhaps including military means to take out its nuclear and weapons-manufacturing facilities -- as early as July.

According to Chinese sources close to the diplomatic establishment, the LGNKC has taken a series of measures to handle the fast-ticking time bomb.

Firstly, the Hu leadership has summoned China's top Korean specialists -- including academics and other experts working in the northeastern provinces -- to Beijing to offer advice to the LGNKC.

Beijing has moved additional troops and the para-military People's Armed Police to its northeastern border with North Korea partly as a precaution against the influx of refugees.

It has also dispatched more diplomatic and intelligence personnel to Pyongyang to get a better handle on the often unpredictable behavior of Dear Leader Kim (Jong Il).

The sources added top Chinese foreign policy-makers including Vice-President Zeng Qinghong, who is Hu's deputy at the LGNKC, faced two nettlesome problems.

One is Kim's highly provocative machinations to put pressure on Washington to not only begin bilateral talks with but also sign a non-aggression pact with Pyongyang.

Should Washington demur, however, Kim has made it clear to his Beijing comrades that Pyongyang will not sit idle while the Pentagon is readying plans to hit North Korea after Iraq.

For example, Kim and his aides have hinted their military forces may launch some form of a pre-emptive strike against targets that could include the 37,000 American soldiers stationed in South Korea.

A Communist party source said Beijing had through enhanced diplomatic interchanges with Pyongyang warned Kim and his team not to do something rash.

"Beijing has told Pyongyang it will invite a stupendous retaliation from Washington -- in addition to losing all international sympathy -- if it were to launch a pre-emptive strike against the U.S., South Korea or Japan," said the source.

The source said, however, that Beijing was not sure if it could sway Kim.

This was despite the fact that as the only country that was in a position to help defend North Korea against a possible U.S. blitzkrieg, China still had considerable clout with its long-standing ally.

Former president Jiang, who has held brief talks with Kim during the latter's visits to China, reportedly said in internal meetings that "much about Kim -- and what he may do -- remains difficult to fathom."

The LGNKC's second conundrum is what Beijing should do when the administration of President George W. Bush moves to de-fang Kim and company soon after liquidating the Saddam Hussein regime.

An Asian diplomat said Beijing would be put in a difficult position if Washington and its allies were to sponsor a resolution at the United Nations Security Council that would involve military action against North Korea.

"Given the Kim regime's pariah status, it will not be difficult for the U.S. to secure the Security Council's backing to use force against Pyongyang," the diplomat said.

"And while Beijing has in the case of Iraq chosen to merely follow in the footsteps of Paris and Moscow, it will be put on the spot regarding Pyongyang-related motions."

Beijing, which has the past few weeks worked hard to prevent the North Korean issue from being discussed at the U.N., could of course, cast a veto at the Security Council.

Yet this could vitiate much of the effort the country has made to present itself as a responsible member of the global community.

Moreover, the U.S., particularly after having smashed the Baghdad regime, will probably not let Beijing's veto stand in its way of taking on North Korea.

Jiang and Hu's difficulties are compounded by the fact that a number of People's Liberation Army (PLA) generals are urging the leadership to accede to Kim's demands for help against possible U.S. attacks.

Almost as soon as the crisis over Iraq erupted, Pyongyang asked Beijing for weapons against American missiles and jet-fighters.

Diplomatic sources in Beijing said the generals were telling the party leadership that China could not afford to "lose" North Korea, seen as an indispensable buffer against the U.S. and its allies in Asia such as Japan.

Moreover, the PLA officers were saying that weapons and other military material should be moved to North Korea before Washington had dismantled the Saddam Hussein regime.

While the LGNKC has yet to decide whether to provide additional military hardware to Pyongyang, it is hoping that diplomacy will resolve what has emerged as President Hu's first major international crisis.

Apart from putting pressure on Pyongyang, Beijing has also been in close consultation with the South Koreans.

'Wooden bridge, sea of fire'

It is believed Beijing has told new President Roh Moo-hyun that Seoul must ensure that South Korea be consulted before U.S. forces would attack North Korea.

And during U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney's forthcoming visit to Beijing, Hu and Jiang will pull out the stops to persuade Washington to start talks with Pyongyang -- and in any case not to resort to the military option.

Beijing has made no secret of the fact it does not want to be drawn by the Kim regime -- which is despised by many cadres -- into a military conflagration.

Quite a few Beijing experts think Pyongyang has moved some of its military hardware -- as well as weapons-manufacturing facilities -- closer to the Chinese border so Washington will have second thoughts about striking them with missiles.

That Beijing is by no means confident it can pull off its diplomatic balancing act is evident from a senior cadre's assessment of the North Korean challenge.

"We're walking on a narrow wooden bridge above a sea of fire," he said.

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