Responding To: In Search of Resolution on North Korea
Different Approaches for a Similar Goal
As the already precarious situation in North Korea becomes more unstable every day, it becomes a greater priority for the United States and China to arrive at a mutual agreement on how to approach denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. This issue sees a real possibility of escalation, supported by a recently released Pentagon assessment that stated invasion seemed to be the only completely viable solution. While the United States and China both place a high priority on stability and denuclearization in the Korean peninsula, it is my opinion that denuclearization is not an achievable option at this point. The United States and China must be open to making concessions both to North Korea and to one another should they want a freeze on further North Korean nuclear development.
From our visits with various U.S. representatives, it was clear that a general American policymaking consensus was for stricter economic and oil sanctions supplemented with diplomatic talks between all stakeholders. Various U.S. representatives believe that these sanctions would force North Korea into negotiations for aid, where hopefully something like the Six Party Talks could be resumed. More importantly, these economic sanctions cannot be fully effective without China’s participation, as China remains North Korea’s biggest trading partner and lifeline. Thomas Christensen agrees, stating that sanctions in the past have failed due to China’s “passivity” in its implementation, and only China has the capacity right now to economically impact North Korea . One senior scholar we spoke to thinks that President Trump’s potential strategy to pressure China into adopting harsher sanctions could be resorting to fear tactics like threatening to attack North Korea, which would risk regime instability. However, strategies like this could easily be misread, and miscommunication could lead to crisis scenarios, which is why other tactics should be considered.
Chinese representatives took firm stances against sanctions, maintaining that North Korea was not an economic issue, but a security one. Instead, China proposes alternative solutions like a “freeze for freeze,” which would call for a suspension in DPRK nuclear activities in exchange for a suspension in U.S. military activity in South Korea. China places greater emphasis on regime stability than denuclearization. Because of its geographic position, it has the most to lose if the situation on the Korean peninsula escalates. Economic sanctions, it believes, could threaten the stability of the regime because Kim Jong-un has shown no sign of relinquishing his nuclear weapons for anything, even at the expense of his populace. Furthermore, if the DPRK regime feels threatened, it may even resort to rash military actions. Even though Beijing has taken a more assertive role than usual in the international effort for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, one Chinese official made it very clear to us that the United States must not outsource responsibilities to China. He explained that North Korea’s true interests lie in negotiation and recognition by the U.S. government, so China’s role in this situation is only secondary.
The two countries’ approaches to the resolution of this problem show the inherent differences in foreign policy principles. The United States sees this as one discrete issue that can be resolved by taking specific steps like enforcing sanctions and engaging in diplomatic talks. However, China believes that influence should not be imposed but learned gradually. The differences in strategy that we see today have been reflected in previous efforts in North Korea. For example, in 2005, after the Six Party Talks, the U.S. Treasury Department launched the Banco Delta Asia initiative to freeze North Korean assets . The United States chose a method of coercion that directly targeted North Korean leadership. China did not like this strategy, as it had the potential to destabilize the regime and was not a reliable leverage that could be adjusted in negotiations . They preferred methods that were more adaptable. What we see today is another repeat of old principles: Washington’s attempts to enforce strict sanctions to push complete denuclearization in one move, and Beijing’s “freeze by freeze” strategy that plays out in a longer time frame and leaves room to maneuver.
In order to reconcile these differences, we must understand the role all powers play in this region and the actual influence they can leverage. The history of tried and failed resolutions on this situation has long eroded trust between the United States, China, and North Korea. In order to reestablish any semblance of assurances between the countries, every actor must be willing to concede to something. The best we can hope for is the continued maintenance of security and stability for as long as possible. Whether that requires China to impose harsher economic and oil sanctions on North Korea or for the United States to cease its request for complete denuclearization, both powers need to understand that North Korea will not give anything unless it gets something in return. North Korea is one of the few international issues where both Washington and Beijing have similar goals. Therefore, a decision on a mutually beneficial solution to stabilize the Korean peninsula is critical to set a precedent for future U.S.-China cooperation and bring forth, as President Xi Jinping has called for, a “new type of great power relationship" .
 Thomas Christensen, The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power (New York: W.W. Norton& Company, 2015), 274.
 Ibid, 226.
 Ibid, 227.
 Ibid, 275.
Cynthia Wang is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania pursuing a double major in political science and environmental studies.
COMMENT FROM CHENYU WU (January 5, 2018):
Great blog! I was surprised by the point you raised that denuclearization of North Korea may not be a workable goal now, and you made a convincing argument about it. Also, the fundamental difference between the two countries’ approaches to resolution you summarized is very impressive. I would like to just add a comment about Chinese attitudes of sanctions against North Korea since you mentioned it in the article. China indeed has been North Korea’s biggest trading partner, but, to use the term of interdependence theory, North Korea’s “vulnerability” in this relationship is probably not very high, meaning that China’s harsher sanctions may force Kim Jong-Un to find alternative support (for example, from Russia or through illegal approaches like nuclear smuggling) and to continually devalue its relationship with China rather than forcing him back to the table. Being afraid of damaging the not-much-left special influence and communication channels towards North Korea can also contribute to Beijing’s hesitation or opposition on sanctions strategy. I would love to know what your further thinking is.
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