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A Strong Signal of China-US Cooperation on North Korea

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March 12, 2013
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The UN Security Council Resolution 2094 issued in response to North Korea’s third nuclear test has been called the toughest sanction yet. The mere fact that it was jointly drafted by the United States and China sends a strong signal of bilateral cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue.  

Sun Ru

Sun Ru

As far as denuclearization is concerned, China and the U.S. have common interests. In the past decade, they stuck to shared positions and agreed to impose sanctions when North Korea launched nuclear tests. Resolution 2094 is the first time that they have agreed to include much more severe and mandatory clauses. Given that China-U.S. cooperation on the nuclear issue was not as effective as it was during the second Bush term, and given China’s preference for “soft” measures, the cooperation on Resolution 2094 appears extraordinary. 

The question is why China and U.S. put their differences aside and worked together to impose the toughest sanction? The answer largely lies in North Korea’s wanton nuclear program. Its successful rocket launch and third nuclear test alarmed both China and the U.S. With this wake-up call, both sides had to think of medium and long-term implications. Early in 2011, the formal Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned that North Korea’s missile loaded nuclear warhead could reach the U.S. mainland in five years. China also had to consider the scenarios of a fierce arms race, an enhanced U.S. military posture, Japan’s military buildup, and a missile defense threat in East Asia. In spite of different reasons, they have the imperative to curb North Korea’s actions. 

The answer may partly lie in China’s policy changes. The domestic atmosphere has become unfavorable towards North Korea’s war rhetoric and capricious behavior. More and more people are inclined to regard North Korea as a liability rather than a strategic asset. Disgusted with Pyongyang’s defiance, lack of gratitude and outdated thinking on nuclear weapons, the calls for a suspension of fuel and food supplies has grown louder and louder. In sum, North Korea’s nuclear program drove China closer to the U.S. side. 

China-US cooperation may not force North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, but it could slow down the pace of North Korea’s advancement of nuclear weapon and missile technology; the very purpose of Resolution 2094. With bilateral cooperation between China and US, North Korea may find it is harder to pit one power against the other. Hopefully they realize that the international community would not accept a nuclear country status, and acknowledge the illusion of possessing nuclear bombs. 

The bilateral cooperation on Resolution 2094 ushered in a good start for the bilateral relationship under the new Chinese leadership and President Obama’s second term. To achieve the goal of denuclearization and maintain peace and stability on Korea Peninsula, China and the US should grasp this opportunity and advance further cooperation. 

First, both sides need close cooperation on the implementation of Resolution 2094. To do this, continued exchange of information about North Korea’s financial transactions and suspicious ships and cargos is requested. China has to do more on export control and monitoring cross-border trade. Such measures may provoke criticism from North Korea, but it is a necessity to show China and the international community’s firm determination. 

Second, both sides should review their policies.  Besides harsh sanctions, Resolution 2094 also urged a peaceful, diplomatic and political resolution to the current situation and a resumption of the six-party talks. It is time for both sides to consider the “stick” vs. “carrot” options, and each country should consider the alternate tools available. For China, the task is turning its firm opposition into harsh action. For the U.S., the task is offering more carrots. The U.S. relies more on sticks and prefers to exert sanctions, but sanctions have proved insufficient, just as foreign minister Yang Jiechi said: “Sanctions are not the end of Security Council actions, nor are sanctions the fundamental way to resolve the relevant issues.” To break the stalemate, the leap day agreement of 2012 remains an option. Though the agreement was abandoned shortly after North Korea’s announcement of a rocket launch, its content remains appealing as a step to any serious dialogue. 

Third, both sides should consider the grand design or a package of solutions. The nuclear issue is intertwined with building Peace, thus nuclear talks and peace talks should be pushed together on two wheels. The nuclear issue is also linked with the Northeast Asia security environment. Both sides need to think about the nuclear issue in the broader regional and international context. Last week, North Korea scrapped armistice, amplified its threatening rhetoric and vowed to make a pre-emptive attack against the U.S. With high tension, the joint military exercise was staged again. The risk of an accidental military clash is increasing. Suppose another Choenan Incident and Yeonpyeong shelling happens, the situation would deteriorate rapidly. With bilateral cooperation, China and the U.S. may prevent the situation spiraling out of control. But it is high time for both sides, and other parties, to think big. 

Fourth, both sides should resume candid communication and coordination. The Obama administration adopted a policy of “strategic patience”, and shifted to military deterrence and trilateral coordination with South Korea and Japan. China wished to know why the U.S. shrugged off its own responsibility and played the blame game instead of engaging in constructive cooperation. The U.S. should not avoid its responsibility. The U.S. military presence in South Korea has brought insecurity to North Korea. The U.S. would not start normalization with North Korea after both Russia and China normalized relations with South Korea, which is an example of deep-rooted “hostile” policy towards North Korea. Such differences between both sides remain and need to be overcome. 

Sun Ru is research professor and Deputy Director of Institute of World Political Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

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