Recently, relations between North Korea and the outside world have become even more tense and delicate. Successive provocations by Pyongyang have further strengthened US resolve to ally with South Korea and Japan, pressuring the DPRK via different tools ranging from sanctions and military deterrence to diplomatic denouncements. As always, China has both been blamed for lack of support for these punitive measures, and counted on for further cooperation in concert with the US-led approach to North Korea. Yet, China has not bought all that has been coined by the US, instead making a “dual-track” proposal last year, in which China urged that parallel negotiations be conducted both on denuclearization and a peace treaty for the peninsula. In order to turn the tide of a situation that cannot be solved if totally controlled and narrated by the United States, the Chinese government has recently furthered this position in the face of more challenges confronting North Korea.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during his press conference at recent annual NPC sessions of China, put forward a new idea of “double suspension” to cool the brinkmanship conducted by North Korea on one side, and the US-ROK alliance on the other, before a head-to-head clash occurs. As an initial step, he suggested North Korea should suspend its nuclear and missile activities, while the US and South Korea should stop their ongoing military exercises. Based on this herald of good will, the relevant parties can return to the negotiating table and bring the proposed parallel negotiations to life.
However, this idea has not been well-received by the US. Through its UN ambassador Nikki Haley, the US government has formally rejected the proposal, standing side by side with both Japanese and South Korean counterparts. Haley said the US was only open to discuss reducing tension based on some degree of “positive behavior” from North Korea. She dismissed any possibility of stopping US-ROK exercises in the meantime. The US State Department maintained this proposal is something “very different”, implying that the US could hardly take it in. Just days later, we got the news that part of the THAAD system had been transported to South Korea, and that the whole system would be deployed completely in two months. This clearly showed the reluctance of Washington and Seoul to even consider the proposal.
China’s reaction to THAAD has been evident for a long time, yet its final realization at this timing made Sino-US collaboration on North Korea even more complicated and hard. From the US side, though Trump’s campaign rhetoric suggested he would have a different approach on resolving the North Korea issue, the limited US options and the recent reactions of the Trump Administration show there is little room for maneuver for the US except to continue the Obama approach. Although the Trump team will certainly not label this as “strategic patience”, the essence is the same. What makes the difference is that the Trump administration will be more resolute and tough in deterring North Korea, which means more sanctions will come and more supervision to mend the loopholes of the existed sanctions will be carried out. The US will not only use official channels to force China to “strictly” abide by the related UN resolutions in this regard, but also target at Chinese companies allegedly involved in illegal transactions with North Korea. Secondary sanctions on China will be used more as a feasible and effective vehicle for this purpose.
Also, the hasty deployment of THAAD is clearly another step to exert pressure on China to curb North Korea. The firm attitude shown by the US side is an effort to make this irreversible, and China can hardly expect any comprise on the issue unless it shifts current approach on North Korea from a “halfhearted” state to an “actual” accord with the US. Though the US has spread the word that it will not exclude a preemptive strike on North Korea as an option, it seems clear that the stakes are prohibitively high for the US, the ROK and Japan to make that really happen.
Given this, there are only three conditions that may break the long-term vicious cycle concerning North Korea. First, if Washington can accept Beijing’s proposal and change its current tough overall approach, and really be open to dialogue without any preconditions, then it may still be possible to persuade North Korea to accept a suspension of nuclear-related activities. That may help achieve the denuclearization goal ultimately if China or others can play a broker role. This route is unlikely: It will be politically risky for Trump at a time when North Korea is so “provocative”, and it seems to be unimaginable for US to step down and yield to any country on fundamental issues, especially to a small but hostile and outcast country such as North Korea.
Second, if China can adjust its long-time strategy of using North Korea as a buffer zone and overcome domestic obstacles to use Sino-DPRK ties to counter the US, and choose a more open and cooperative relationship with US, then it may be possible to force North Korea back to the negotiation track. But even with China’s whole-hearted cooperation, the issue may still not be resolved.
Finally, a change for North Korea itself could result in a peaceful settlement of the issue.
Judging from the current situation, none of the above seems to be likely. Any of these paths demands a total reconfiguration of a nation’s national interest.
Therefore, in the near future, we can only expect an extension of the current dilemma.