Addressing North Korea Requires a Joint U.S.-Chinese Effort
When President Donald Trump accepted the oral invitation to have a meeting sent with North Korea’s leader Kim Jung-un, China, like other countries, was very surprised. Our close cooperation since last year is the most important driving force behind North Korea’s return to diplomatic dialogue. Now we have a very good chance of reaching a denuclearization agreement, in which China and the United States need to cooperate closely more than ever before.
Actually, the North Korea nuclear issue is more of a strategic issue than a policy issue. It is both regional and international in scope, not limited to United States and North Korea. Sino-U.S. cooperation is of paramount importance to resolving this; the rapid advancement of North Korea’s nuclear program is not driven by smart calculation on the part of the North Korean leader, but by the differences in our understanding and approach.
Fortunately, we have narrowed our differences since President Trump took office. During the South Korea 2018 Winter Olympics, the United States agreed to halt a military exercise and North Korea agreed to halt nuclear and missile tests, which helped two countries to build some basic trust. American agreement to hold direct dialogue with North Korea is also matched with China’s consistent policy, leading the former to work together with the United States to exert huge pressure over North Korea’s nuclear activity—even at the expense of Chinese companies and individuals connected with North Korea.
The Sino-DPRK relationship is not an alliance, due to two reasons. The first is that China has abandoned the alliance policy ever since the Deng Xiaoping era; the second reason is that China and the DPRK have no common enemy after the normalization of China’s relation with the United States and Republic of Korea (ROK).
However, the Sino-DPRK relation is also very special: the two countries share a long border, and, North Korea would not have survived the Korean War without China’s involvement—which cost the lives of 180 thousand Chinese and injured another 380 thousand, which is why so many Chinese families have special feelings for North Korea. In addition, the power structure between North Korea and South Korea is imbalanced following South Korea’s rapid development and the U.S.-South Korea alliance. A stable relation between China and North Korea reshapes the power structure and restores stability in the peninsular. Finally, North Korea and China both bear huge strategic pressure from the U.S.-ROK military alliance.
China and North Korea have different positions on the nuclear issue, except for this: our relation is not only very important to each other, but also irreplaceable, which can be explained by Kim Jong-un’s visit to Beijing.
What North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wanted from Beijing visit was to have China’s support before the two summits, and for help preparing for any possible danger to its regime if the summit with United States fails. For China, this visit was initiated by North Korea, and more importantly, Kim Jong-un publicly promised to denuclearize, which is the precondition for his Beijing trip.
Kim Jong-un’s Beijing visit and the recent improvement of the relation between China and North Korea are conducive to stability on the Korean Peninsula and the success of the upcoming two summits. The key to settling the North Korea issue is to offer security guarantees to North Korea, and in return, require North Korea to transfer its nuclear assets to a third party. Considering the low trust that exists between North Korea and the United States, any kind of guarantee must be multilateral, involving not only the United States but also China. Meanwhile, China plays very important and unique role in pressing North Korea to transfer its nuclear assets.
In order to seize the current opportunity and bring an end to North Korea nuclear issue, three things must be done. First, we should be united and speak in one voice. Both America and China have different concerns on this matter, but we should talk over these differences through close-door negotiation rather than just presenting conflicting views in public.
Second, the United States needs to have a serious conversation with China over our security concerns. The biggest worry for China is the current policy uncertainty coming from the United States.
And third, we should strive to reach a package solution through Sino-U.S. dialogue, which should later involve the two Koreas, Russia and Japan. We need aim for grand bargain instead of incremental solution, and implementation should be done step by step.
As the key negotiator this time, the United States should send special envoy to Beijing as well as other capitals, like what China did while hosting six-party talks. By doing this, we can send a clear message to North Korea there is no way to split the international cooperation, Sino-U.S. cooperation in particular.
Wang Junsheng is an associate professor of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He is currently a visiting senior fellow of the Atlantic Council.