China's North Korea syndrome

WASHINGTON -- Reading all the stuff about North Korea's nukes, one thing strikes me: the United States seems to want to outsource not just its jobs to China, but also its diplomacy.

"It's up to China!" and "China can do more!" are the operative phrases emerging from D.C.-think-tanks and the U.S. government. As if ...

Here's where those easy exhortations break down and why I think it's naive of us to expect that China can "do more," or in the words of John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, "end this thing tomorrow."

First, there's a silly assumption in Washington that our interests (no nukes in North Korea) are the same as China's. They're not. China's first interest in North Korea is making sure that Kim Jong Il's regime doesn't collapse. China's second interest? Making sure the Kim regime doesn't collapse. From Beijing's perspective, nukes in North Korea rank somewhere around 10th.

Why is China so intent on "regime maintenance"? If North Korea collapses a few things happen:

First, about 2 million people will rush into China's northeast as refugees. Not fun -- and a huge tax on China's already poor infrastructure. (An estimated 250,000 North Korean refugees already move back and forth between the two countries.)

Second, China will be faced with a tough decision: dispatch the People's Liberation Army into North Korea? What happens if the PLA meets up with the South Korean or U.S. armies heading north?

Third, remember all that South Korean investment in China? We're talking billions. It would all go home, into building a united country.

Fourth, a North Korean collapse means that China can forget about turning North Korea into an economic vassal state. (Talk to any South Korean interested in investing in North Korea. Any mine or industrial facility with any prospects of a profit is already a target of Chinese investment.) If Kim collapses, China's firms are going to lose out to the Korean brothers from the south.

Fifth, how would a united Korean peninsula change China's geopolitical position? It definitely wouldn't help it. Right now, Beijing has an (admittedly wacky) Commie buffer state on their border.

But at least it's Commie. With a democratic, capitalist, united Korean peninsula, China loses out. (One of the under-reported stories in China is the depth of South Korea's cultural influence in China. In the West, we like to think that China's youth are "Westernized" or even "Americanized." The reality is that they're "South Koreanized." That formulation is definitely unwieldy, but it's closer to the truth.)

Six, China's ethnic Korean population along North Korea's border is not known for being restive. But what happens to those folks once the Korean peninsula is united? Greater Korea, anyone?

Another broader factor also plays into the problems on the Korean peninsula: For decades the United States has assumed that it could mold China into an ally. We had limited success in yanking China into our battle with the Soviet Union. But an exception doesn't prove the rule. There's a lot of hyperventilating in Washington these days about the "G2" and about how the United States and China together will solve the world's problems.

On the Korean peninsula -- the very peninsula where China and the United States fought a nasty war 59 years ago -- those assumptions have run aground. We can't outsource the solution to North Korea's nukes to China because China views its interests a lot differently than we do. Sure, China would rather not see Pyongyang have the bomb. But if given the choice between a nuclear-armed North Korea and no North Korea at all, Beijing will go with the former.

So, this is the maw that China is staring into as Washington demands more action from Beijing. So what will Beijing do? My guess is encourage more talks.

Pomfret is Washington Post Outlook editor and former Beijing bureau chief.