Responding To: In Search of Resolution on North Korea
U.S.-China: Weighing Conflicting Interests for a Common Goal on Denuclearization
North Korea successfully conducted its sixth nuclear test in September, determined to develop an advanced ICBM with a nuclear warhead. Once realized, this ICBM will exert a credible threat in attacking the United States and creating significant regional insecurity for China. Despite efforts by both countries, Washington’s deterrence framework and China’s proposal of “freeze for freeze” towards peace talks seem to have little effect. In fact, both countries are reluctant to conform to their roles in each other’s plan in denuclearization. The outcome of this cooperative endeavor eventually boils down to weighing multiple conflicting interests on both sides, which do not necessarily create a zero-sum quandary.
What are on the minds of U.S. and Chinese leaders?
United States’ calculation involves two aspects: giving security assurance to its allies and bringing North Korea to negotiation. It currently has a substantial military footprint on the Korean Peninsula. On the one hand, as Kim Jong-un made concrete progress in gaining nuclear power, Japan and South Korea stared to consider developing their defense capability without the U.S. umbrella. On the other hand, peace talks are the optimal solution for the United States, given limited intelligence capability to support a confident preemptive strike or civilian uprising in North Korea. Getting involved in another war after the turmoil in Iraq and Syria would not likely gain public support, and the danger of sending American troops into North Korea without certainty on the location of the nuclear weapons is too high. If an immediate removal of the Kim regime is not possible, the United States must rely on negotiation to stop North Korea from attaining further nuclear capability.
To achieve these two objectives, however, any military move generates a dilemma. Washington turned to economic sanctions to force Kim Jong-un to the table; a means that kicks the ball to China, who accounted for 83 percent and 85 percent of all the exports and imports to North Korea in 2016.
Although China has a genuine interest in de-nuclearizing the region, it is also reluctant to employ a full economic embargo given the contingency of war or refugee flow once the Kim regime collapses rather than compromises. One Chinese official told us in Washington reiterated that this contention is “a security issue but not an economic one,” implying that the United States needs first to reduce military exercises to provide Kim with the legitimacy and security he wants.
Despite these concerns, China has been reconsidering its options over the years and actively showing effort. Since 2016, China has implemented many United Nations resolutions on North Korea sanctions, including ending renewal of North Korean labor contracts, banning exports such as coal, and closing all joint business ventures with North Korea. During our visit, a Chinese official also commented that “although China wants to have a good relationship with neighbors,” it first wants to “be a responsible country” on the international stage. In fact, as the comradeship between China and Korea wore down to a minimum, China does not hold the key diplomatic power to lobby North Korea to talk anymore. The concern for China is stability: overly stringent sanctions might force North Koreans to war. Any military conflicts would lead to more complexity than just insecurity on the Chinese border, due to the clause in the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty that requires China to intervene “when North Korea is under armed attack.”
With a shared goal on denuclearizing the Korea Peninsula, the United States and China should eventually weigh these clashing interests and make necessary concessions towards real progress. Sustained efforts are required before peace talks can happen—the United States should avoid military actions while providing assurances to Japan and South Korea; China should execute economic sanctions fully following UN resolutions while mitigating the risk of regional instability. Both the United States and China should continue to at least maintain the power balance on the peninsula in the short run to prevent nuclear proliferation into even more countries.
The long-term stability in the region requires a patient transition and unification process. Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai pointed to Germany as an example that a complete economic and cultural unification can “take decades.” Mr. Thae Yong-ho, a former high-ranking North Korean diplomat, revealed in a U.S. congressional hearing that “[North Korean] citizens…increasingly watch illegally imported South Korean movies and dramas.” Gradual amalgamation is happening, and it should be two-way between the North and South. Cultural openness and access to the international network will help erase the animosity that North Korean civilians have towards South Korea and the United States. By then, North Koreans will no longer unite in enmity against the international community but opt for peace instead.
Ruolin Zhao is a junior at Georgetown University (SFS'19) majoring in international political economy.
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