On June 20, 2019, President Xi Jinping paid a state visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the first visit to the DPRK by a Chinese leader in 14 years. The visit took place in an atmosphere of great uncertainty: the China-US trade dispute carried on and, in February, talks between the DPRK and the United States in Hanoi had broken down. At the end of June, however, the presidents of China and the United States met during the G20 summit in Osaka. The two sides re-launched talks on trade issues and also discussed the DPRK nuclear issue. During his subsequent visit to South Korea, US President Donald Trump met with DPRK leader Kim Jong Un in Panmunjom, projecting hope for a new round of diplomatic consultations and political settlements.
Many analysts have interpreted this from the perspective of a three-party game between China, the United States, and the DPRK. The argument is that China hopes to play “the DPRK card” in the China-US trade war to force the United States to reach an agreement, while the DPRK expects to play “the China card” to force the United States to make concessions. Game theory has long been applied to international politics and it might explain some of the dynamics here. However, the logic of China’s policy toward the DPRK on the Korean Peninsula cannot be explained by game theory alone. I argue that China is more concerned with how to play the role of external think tank in the relationship between the United States and the DPRK.
The DPRK Has a Perception Problem with American-style Democracy
The DPRK nuclear crisis is the result of various factors, but the high level of distrust between the DPRK and the United States is the core reason. Of course, the US government’s hostility toward the DPRK and its attempt to subvert the current regime are significant causes of the DPRK’s nuclear self-protection. At the same time, the DPRK’s perception of the United States and the basis of its excessive counterattacks are undeniable. The DPRK must address the flaws in its perception of American-style democracy in order to understand it in an accurate, balanced, and rational way.
First, it is important for nations like the DPRK to understand that the two dominant political parties in the US presidential elections often elicit polarization in policy positions, but only for a time. Specifically, candidates make their views clear in debates and propose policies different from those of the current president. Countries that have great distrust of the United States focus too narrowly on the negative words and deeds raised during campaigns, which makes it hard for them to see the whole picture.
Second, we have seen that, after the election, a new president must deliver on campaign promises for a period. This is often seen by other countries as a betrayal of diplomatic commitments, creating a misperception of threats. During President Bill Clinton’s second term, diplomatic interactions between the DPRK and the United States had reached a fairly high level. In October 2000, Madeleine Albright traveled to Pyongyang and discussed Clinton’s trip to the DPRK. Afterward, the DPRK sent Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok to the United States and invited Clinton to visit and promised to resolve all US security concerns. American-style democracy is characterized by foreign policy re-assessments whenever the government changes. In fact, this is not only the case for foreign policy; this is true for domestic policy as well. The Gorge W. Bush administration changed the entire US discourse regarding the DPRK.
As a superpower, the United States’s domestic political dynamics often spill over into international politics and greatly affect the external perceptions of US foreign strategy, policy, and diplomatic continuity. Given that the DPRK’s political system is completely different and has had no diplomatic relations with the United States for a long time, coupled with the country’s small strength, it is not so surprising that the country would become confused, unintelligible, and angry, resulting in excessive reactions and escalated tensions. The DPRK must understand that these are typical fluctuations in American-style democracy, not permanent threats. China has had long experience in dealing with the United States and can share how to subtly ease US pressure and use strategic opportunities. In this regard, China can play the role of external think tank to the DPRK.
The United States Needs China to Crack the DPRK’s Perception Rigidity
The United States has a similarly rigid perception of the DPRK. After the Cold War, the United States became a global hegemon. In the process, it had adopted a simple classifications for other countries, defining, for example, the DPRK and Iran as “rogue states” and Somalia as a “failed country.” China and Russia, on the other hand, were defined as “revisionist states.” Having ominously dubbed certain countries “rogue states,” the US made it essentially politically indefensible to conduct diplomatic negotiations with them or to reduce sanctions against them. This political taboo has persisted, making it difficult for the United States to negotiate on the DPRK nuclear issue even today. A final resolution of the DPRK nuclear issue requires the normalization of relations between the DPRK and the United States, and the integration of the DPRK into the international community, including regional economic and social networks. The DPRK’s commitments and actions on the nuclear issue must be synchronized with the reduction of sanctions against the DPRK and the normalization of relations between the DPRK and the United States, a process that must be done in stages. Trump can be said to be an unprecedented and unconventional American leader when it comes to the DPRK nuclear issue. After all, he is the only sitting US president to have met with a leader of the DPRK. However, his biggest obstacle to a policy breakthrough with the DPRK is the negative bias and perception that has persisted in the United States.
Since there are no diplomatic relations between the DPRK and the United States, economic exchanges are necessarily at zero. China is the country that best understands the DPRK, and it is the most closely related country. China’s proposal to the United States has convinced Trump to try to persuade his domestic opponents. State Councilor Wang Yi recently announced to the media that President Xi asked Trump to ease the sanctions against the DPRK when they met in Osaka. This is China playing the role of the external think tank on the Korean Peninsula issue.