As two big players on the Korean Peninsula, China and the United States need to closely monitor North Korea’s nuclear activities and other destabilizing developments. A number of disputes between the two countries and different positions they have adopted on a series of incidents on the peninsula last year exposed their conflicting interests There’s no doubt North Korea’s second nuclear test and subsequent suspension of Six Party Talks (SPT) were catalysts for the resulting tension on the Korean Peninsula and Sino-American conflict. Of course, the two country’s policies adopted during the crisis were also problematic as both Beijing and Washington eschewed leadership roles in favor of letting the two Koreas act.
With regard to China’s DPRK policy, its favoritism of the north is clear however, its responses last year were not without reason. Beijing doubted the conclusion of the joint-investigation into the sinking of the navy corvette Cheonan and considered North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island to be an overreaction caused by the sustained pressure of repeated military exercises.
To assess the shift in China’s DPRK policy, we also need to put it into perspective. China saw the goal of denuclearization diminishing after the north’s second nuclear test and felt increased uncertainty about leadership succession. So Beijing decided to change its policy from mainly putting pressure on North Korea to a largely engaging one in 2009. Consistent with this change, Pyongyang has also taken several significant steps to woo China.
However, adopting a protective role for whatever North Korea does on the Korean Peninsula does not conform to Chinese interests and will stain China’s image in the international community. North Korea’s military and diplomatic behavior does not conform to world development trends and norms and China needs to keep a balance between a responsible role and its special and subtle relations with the DPRK. Beijing also needs to understand Washington’s frustration over denuclearization progress and the resulting pressure of tough policy stances adopted by Seoul. But one fact is also clear: China would neither turn its relations with the DPRK into an alliance nor support them at the expense of shifting the power balance on the peninsula. In the process of deepening relations with DPRK, China will set its own rhythm and make investments limited to within a certain scope. It will also keep using incentives from time to time as China does want to maintain this regime’s stability. Whether it can be sustained, however, does not depend on China’s support, but on the DPRK’s own policies and approach to deal with growing domestic challenges.
As for the US, both China’s increasing strength and the North Korea problem are important on its strategy chessboard and its policy towards either of them will have collateral effects on the other. If the US makes hedging China as a priority in its East Asian agenda, the North Korea issue will certainly lose prominence in Sino-American relationships; consequently there will be less trust and strategic inter-dependence on the peninsula. And Pyongyang would grasp this sort of chance to drive a wedge between China and the US. As a result, the international community would get a false impression: China-North Korea and US-South Korea as two conflicting groups in Northeast Asia.
Currently, there are gaps in how China and the US deal with three issues: conflicts between the two Koreas; North Korea’s uranium enrichment program (UEP) and how to resume the SPT. The differences reflect the US stressing the principle of international moral punishment being meted out to North Korea and the demand that it undertake an attitude change. China, however, is seemingly ignoring the justice, the principle. In effect, China’s policy underlines pragmatism and flexibility: it feels an urgency to manage or control North Korea’s UEP, its process of miniaturizing nuclear warheads and its overreactive behavior on US-ROK military drills near the northern limit line (NLL).
The difference reflects not only the two sides’ unaligned priorities on the peninsula, but also their approach to tough security issues. And, it also relates to the subtle special relations between China and North Korea. However, so far only one way leads to Pyongyang, i.e. China; therefore we have to give special consideration to its methods. Excessively pressing China to comply with American principles and policy certainly would not lead to committed cooperation.
In other words, Washington has the right to coax Beijing to maintain an acceptable international community line on the North Korea issue while giving more flexibility to China to go its own way to constrain DPRK behavior.
In terms of the current issue, the North has already incurred sufficient punishment, so both China and the US need to find ways to get over the crises of Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island and create an environment for the two Koreas to sit down together to discuss measures to improve their relations. However, China and the US could not give a free hand to the two Koreas because they are likely to head in the wrong direction – either getting bogged down on everything, or South Korea unilaterally making valueless concessions. It is time for China and the US to consider jointly designing a roadmap for the new round of Six Party Talks. We need to review many things that have happened since 2009, such as stopping operation of the 2,000 centrifuges, dismantling all the UEP facilities and shipping out all materials, inspecting many sites suspected of storing plutonium and uranium, controlling the bomb stockpile, discussing with the DPRK providing electricity system assistance, etc.
These issues and others – leadership succession, reform configuration and economic assistance, security support for the two Koreas, crisis management, future nuclear testing and missile firing – should all be included in the two nations’ policy coordination agendas. Given certain issues are too sensitive, they could be discussed in a track 2 meeting.
After the Fukushima nuclear reactors crisis, the safety status of the Yongbian reactors become a major issue when the DPRK withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and convention on nuclear safety. Contributing to concern was the belief that their technical measures for safety were less advanced. If any radioactive material leaks out as a result of an incident, the nuclear contamination will be much more serious than in Fukushima (a study shows 120,000 people will be direct victims and 12 million in surrounding areas will be affected to different degrees). Therefore, China, the US and other countries also need to pay attention to the potential calamity, An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)-sponsored seminar on the safety of the Yongbian reactors should be proposed as soon as possible.
Liu Ming is Director of International Relations Theory Studies and Center for Korea Studies at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS).