Suan Ee Ong is Senior Research Analyst at the Centre for Multilateralism Studies (CMS), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
May 30, 2012
It has been a tumultuous 2012 for the Korean peninsula since the demise of Kim Jong-Il and the ascent of his son Kim Jong-Un to the North Korean leadership last December.  In February, the pioneering Leap Day Deal was announced, with Pyongyang agreeing to suspend all nuclear tests, uranium enrichment and long-range missile tests, and allow verification and monitoring of its Yongbyon nuclear facility by international inspectors in exchange for 240,000 metric tonnes of food aid from the US. However, the deal fell through thanks to Pyongyang’s (failed) April rocket launch, souring prospects of resuming broader negotiations on nuclear disarmament.
Adding to US post-rocket launch exasperation at China’s lukewarm response to calls for further sanctions on Pyongyang, Chinese president Hu Jintao recently reiterated his country’s ruling party’s commitment to traditional ties with Pyongyang, lauding Kim Jong-Un’s new leadership. Also, China, Japan and South Korea recently produced a joint declaration on regional cooperation which omitted any mention of Korean peninsula security issues as a priority.
Based on photographs from Kim Il-Sung’s centennial parade last month, the US expressed suspicions that a Chinese company had provided missile equipment to Pyongyang. Although experts have since assessed the equipment to be mock-ups, the US remains concerned about growing Chinese investment in North Korea and Pyongyang’s access to China’s large stockpile of leftover weaponry as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) modernizes and updates its arsenal.
Most recently, 38north, a website run by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University and former US State Department official Joel Wit, reported that construction work has resumed at North Korea’s experimental light water reactor (ELWR) facility, reigniting concerns of North Korean nuclear weapons production and development capacity.
Alongside, cross-border tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul continue to escalate. Pyongyang recently pelted South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak and his supporters with threats of “sacred war” and assassination in retaliation for perceived insults during Kim Il-Sung’s centenary celebrations. North Korea was also accused of jamming the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems of hundreds of civilian aircraft and ships in South Korea – an allegation Pyongyang has vehemently denied.
Both the US and China have strong ties to the Korean peninsula; China and North Korea are traditional allies, while China and South Korea have just celebrated 20 years of diplomatic links, and two-way trade between the countries hit US$ 200 billion in 2011. Washington, meanwhile, has had a tumultuous relationship with Pyongyang since the Korean War ended in 1953, augmented by former President George W. Bush’s labeling of North Korea as a member of the “Axis of Evil” in 2001, Pyongyang’s boycott of the Six-Party Talks in 2009, and several nuclear and missile tests in between. Contrarily, Washington and Seoul are staunch military and economic allies.
Sino-US relations are already strained thanks to the Chen Guangcheng case, growing speculation on US arms sales to Taiwan, and continued friction over bilateral trade issues. Furthermore, there appears no shortage of domestic political drama in either country, with the Bo Xilai scandal and imminent leadership transition in China on one hand and the upcoming US presidential election on the other. In light of such unique circumstances, what are the implications of recent security developments on the Korean peninsula for the Sino-US relationship?
In the foreseeable future, it appears unlikely for China and the US to see eye to eye on the best way to deal with the Korean peninsula’s omnipresent security threats. The crux of these continued tensions perhaps lie in the profoundly different ways that China and the US view Northeast Asian regional stability; and thus, how to maintain or achieve it.
In the aftermath of the failed Leap Day Deal, US-North Korea relations have further deteriorated. The US remains concerned that Pyongyang will launch a third nuclear test in the near future, and have repeatedly called for more stringent economic sanctions against the Hermit Kingdom so long as it continues to behave belligerently. Also, Kim Jong-Un’s perceived lack of leadership training prior to his ascent and uncertainty of how much clout he has within his father’s nomenklatura has heightened US worries of internal instability in Pyongyang and how this might translate to externally antagonistic behavior.
This puts the US at stark odds with the more accommodating Chinese line. Some have even labeled China’s North Korea policy as illogical and damaging to Chinese national interests because a soft approach enables Pyongyang’s bellicosity, discomfits Seoul and Tokyo, and tarnishes China’s image as a supporter of international law and norms. To the US, China’s calls for minimal pressure on Pyongyang and fending off demands for Beijing to be more involved in bringing Pyongyang around undercuts China’s security interests at both national and regional levels.
From the US’ perspective, a bellicose, difficult and questionably-nuclear Pyongyang is a destabilizing force.  However, keeping Pyongyang “unstable” but in need of trade links and humanitarian aid may be, in fact, China’s way of upholding peace and stability in Northeast Asia. If there is one thing that the international community can count on (and history has proven this time and time again), it is for Pyongyang to behave badly every once in a while. It would therefore not be a bridge too far to label Pyongyang’s volatility as the single most predictable force dominating the realm of Northeast Asian regional security.
Just as the US perceives China’s approach as lacking in conviction, China probably judges that the US is not playing its cards as prudently as it could be. The “food for freeze” tactic that has been employed by the US since the 1990s may have created an expectation pattern that reinforces cycles of North Korean provocation and accommodation. In other words, giving Pyongyang aid only in exchange for a nuclear concession tells Pyongyang that the only way it can ensure the survival of its regime is through sporadic, well-timed, repeated acts of provocation.
Ultimately, China and the US (and the wider region) have much more to lose than to gain if they do not make greater efforts to reconcile their divergent notions of Korean peninsula and Northeast Asian security and stability. These contrary notions have festered mutual distrust between these two powerful actors, resulting in a decision-making impasse in managing the security of the Korean peninsula. Arguably, so long as this situation persists, this journey will remain a protracted and tedious one ahead.
2012 is meant to be the year where North Korea becomes “a great, powerful and prosperous nation”. However, the passing of each day seems to make this notion progressively less realistic. For the moment, the future of the Korean peninsula remains murky and uncertain. It is therefore imperative that both China and the US remain cognizant of the influence and impact of their respective stances on the security of the Korean peninsula, Northeast Asia, and perhaps most importantly, upon their relations with one another.
Suan Ee Ong is Senior Research Analyst at the Centre for Multilateralism Studies (CMS), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore