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China and the U.S.: Face Reality and Talk to North Korea

Aug 08 , 2017
  • Li Zheng

    Assistant Researcher, CICIR
  • Sun Chenghao

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations


On July 28, North Korea launched its second missile test within the month of July, which, according to some experts, is seemingly capable of reaching a wide swath of the U.S., including Los Angeles and Chicago. It is beyond doubt that the overarching strategy of containment or intimidation adopted by the U.S. towards North Korea – including several rounds of international sanctions, military deterrence and cyber interventions – has failed to stop the development of the country’s nuclear and missile capabilities.

North Korea is nearing its ultimate goal of possessing full capabilities of nuclear deterrence toward the United States. The imminent threat produces a series of questions from international society: Is it now the last chance to stop North Korea by military means? What strategy will North Korea take after it becomes a nuclear country? If China and the U.S. cannot stop North Korea from becoming a nuclear country, will talks of cooperation on this issue resurface? What can China do to prevent the situation from deteriorating?

Unfortunately, there are no silver bullets for any of these problems. Take military action for example. Everyone dares not to exclude a worst case scenario involving North Korea using its nuclear weapons to retaliate. Even if the success rate of the strike is 1%, nobody wants face this risk. The other options are also full of uncertainties. In fact, the development of nuclear weaponry does not undermine the stability of the North Korean government. Solving North Korea problem is a long-lasting and arduous task, and as the gap between China and the U.S. becomes closer than ever, cooperation is a process that the two sides should cherish.

For a rather long time, the U.S. policy toward North Korea has been locked in a dilemma, essentially between U.S. willingness to make a deal with North Korea to persuade it to forsake nuclear power and ongoing domestic factors that make the deal hard to implement. For instance, the agreed upon framework signed between the U.S. and North Korea in 1994 was a good starting point to solve the problem, but the implementation of the agreement was troubled, especially when the promise of helping North Korea constructing two light water reactors was not delivered in time. Therefore, North Korea saw the agreement as a tactic to ease the situation rather than a genuine offer.

A similar case is the September 19 Joint Statement after the Six-Party Talks of 2005. Not long after the statement, the U.S. imposed financial sanctions on North Korea. The contradictory actions sent confusing signals and made North Korea feel as though nuclear power was the only guarantee of national security while at the same time taking a more cunning attitude toward proposals raised by other parities. Kim Jong-un, the young leader who has never dealt with China or the U.S. via Six-Party Talks or any other bilateral dialogues, will be more determined to develop nuclear capabilities as he grows increasingly skeptical about the effectiveness of the agreements.

The contradictions of U.S. policy towards North Korea stem from its domestic politics, as only a few political elites believe North Korea is a rational country that can be dealt with, while most people still treat North Korea as an existential threat. The domestic atmosphere makes it even more difficult for the U.S. executive branch to take a relatively soft policy, which might backfire when Congress and the media criticize the government, and thus recklessly push both the U.S. and North Korea to a more dangerous brink.

The contradictions also influence other countries, especially China. China is willing to cooperate with the U.S. on the issue, but a vacillating U.S. policy comes at the expense of China’s influence over North Korea. Isolation is never a solution. A more isolated North Korea becomes a more uncontrollable and thorny issue, which leads to fewer options for international society at a higher cost for addressing the problem.

Ancient Chinese philosophy holds that as soon as a negative situation reaches its extremity, it reverses course. Since North Korea’s development of nuclear capabilities appears to have reached its own extremity, we might expect China to be more rational and confident, and return to the negotiation table after fulfilling its sense of security. Doing so will reduce North Korea’s hostility and vigilance toward the U.S. and other countries.

If this happens, first the U.S. should consider China’s proposal in order to restore China’s credibility on the issue. While North Korea is still very hostile towards the outside world, China is a country that the U.S. and South Korea can rely upon and may be the only nation with the potential to influence North Korea. China has proposed “dual-track approach” and “double suspension” in hopes that all parties will first take a step back and then begin dialogue and negotiations. North Korea once sent signals that it would stop tests of nuclear weapons and missiles in exchange for ending the U.S. and South Korea’s joint military exercise. But the U.S. still insists on its out-of-date policy of military deterrence, a failed policy to force North Korea to flinch.

If it is difficult for the U.S. to accept the whole package of “dual suspension,” the U.S. might consider some more subtle and minor changes of policy. For instance, they could adjust sanction provisions slightly, reduce the scale of the military exercise and its threat to North Korea, keep a low-profile on encouraging defectors, ask for North Korea to reduce its frequency of testing missiles, and release the U.S. citizens it detained in return. Those measures will give North Korea some hope to shake off isolation and alleviate external threats, thus preventing North Korea from taking more unnecessarily provocative actions.

Second, the U.S. should consider supporting dialogues with North Korea, joined by additional parties through a variety of channels. Whenever North Korea makes breakthroughs on its nuclear capabilities, it releases some positive signals to test the response of other countries. On July 19, North Korea launched its “DPR Korea Tour” on its National Tourism Administration’s website in different languages to attract foreign tourists, unusual for a country that worried a lot about the plot of regime change by western countries.

The next day, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, published an article arguing that the prerequisite of the unification should be the unity of the Korean ethnic nation. The article also blamed the Park Geun-hye government for current confrontations between the North and South, which to some extent responds to South Korea’s proposal to start a military negotiation.

The U.S. should perceive those signals positively and support official or unofficial bilateral dialogues between the North and South, China and North Korea, Russia and North Korea, Japan and North Korea, and even between the U.S. and North Korea in order to help North Korea experience contact with the outside world and shore up its confidence, thus allowing the country to return to the right channel of negotiation.

Last but not least, China and the U.S. should make concerted efforts to push forward public or closed-door trilateral dialogues among China, the U.S., and North Korea in order to pave the way for restarting official negotiations. After witnessing such sophisticated calculations to develop nuclear capabilities, it’s very hard to claim North Korea as a totally irrational country. Fundamentally different from terrorist groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda, and despite some vocal provocations and threatening videos, North Korea has never conducted any real provocative actions towards the U.S., whereas countries like Iran have directly challenged U.S. military presence.

China and the U.S. should be fully aware of North Korea’s trait of arrogance and pragmatism, an acknowledgement that will provide certain security guarantee to the North and assist in achieving three-party talks via the New York Channel of communication or other channels arranged by China. This strategy will urge North Korea back to the negotiating table and reduce the uncertainties of the issue before it’s too late.

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