Here's How to Rid Korea of Nuclear Weapons

There is one key player that might be able to bridge the gap between the North and the South.

With the Iran nuclear agreement now on the table for debate, many foreign-policy specialists and senior diplomats are naturally turning back to the North Korean nuclear issue to ask what lessons might be applied to that seemingly intractable situation. Indeed, it seems likely that lessons have also been instructive in the opposite direction—namely, in providing a negative example of how a half-hearted and often-incoherent strategy, not to mention a failure to coordinate effectively among the great powers, allowed Pyongyang to stride over the nuclear threshold. To date, there have been three DPRK nuclear tests and North Korea seems determined to push aggressively for means of delivering its warheads.

For the whole of East Asia, there is no more-urgent security issue. The strategic significance of potential scenarios related to security on the Korean Peninsula far surpasses the crises in the East and South China Seas in terms of importance. Hundreds of millions of lives and the existence of whole nations are at stake in the former, while the latter issues involve mainly the disposition of “rocks and reefs.” This disparity should be on the minds of both Chinese and American diplomats as they go about preparing for another Obama-Xi summit in Washington DC this coming September. Since anyone who thinks seriously about the future of the Korean Peninsula eventually arrives at the conclusion that the key node (among many important relationships) is that between Beijing and Pyongyang, this edition of Dragon Eye will focus on examination of a few recent Chinese academic assessments of this most vital lattice of the Korean prism.

In the wake of North Korea’s February 2013 nuclear test, the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing appeared to have reached a new nadir. This brazen third test by the young upstart leader of the DPRK, Kim Jong-un, appeared to be a direct challenge to the new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, who already seemed inclined toward a more dynamic and forceful foreign policy. At that time, a Global Times editorial intoned that “China should not fear North Korea” and even warned that Chinese–North Korean ties could see a break akin to the massive and long-lasting breach in Sino-Soviet relations during the 1960s. Readers familiar with the Sino-Soviet rivalry, including both the bloody skirmishes and nuclear threats that accompanied the break between Moscow and Beijing back then, will have read this comparison as a stern warning to Pyongyang.

An article appearing in the spring 2013 edition of 东北亚论坛 [Northeast Asia Forum] seemed to argue for a radical shift in Beijing’s approach. A few American analysts have previously claimed this journal was not worth looking at, but that is clearly not the case, since this paper was written by a professor at Beijing’s Central Party School, undoubtedly one of China’s premier policy think tanks. Also suggestive of the paper’s importance, it was the lead article in that particular volume of this journal. The author opines against Pyongyang’s skill at “利用大国矛盾” [using tensions among the great powers] to its advantage. The author similarly regrets the tendency of “North Korea-US contradictions becoming China-US contradictions.” The tendency has caused China to become a “挡风墙” [wall blocking the wind]. This assessment minces no words in declaring that a nuclear accident or nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula would pose an existential threat [致命影响] to the security of the Beijing-Tianjin megalopolis, and China’s northeastern region generally. The author is quite outspoken in declaring that China is the biggest loser in the DPRK’s nuclearization and that, moreover, the current Chinese policy toward North Korea—characterized as three “no’s”—“不战不乱不垮” [no war, no chaos and no collapse] is failing to prevent nuclearization, even as the window for curtailing this development is closing.

Since 2013, there have been a number of significant developments pointing in various directions for the critical Beijing-Pyongyang node: the building of a large, new span across the Yalu River, the arrest and likely murder of Jang Song-taek (who had been seen as an advocate for Chinese interests), the hubbub over the alleged DPRK cyberstrike against Sony Pictures, as well as a clutch of successful summits between Xi Jinping and South Korean president Park Geun-hye. A banner headline gracing the front page of the October 15, 2014 edition of 环球时报[Global Times] declared: “Kim Jung-un Resurfaces and Causes a Stir.” According to this favorable rendering, which was accompanied by a large photo of the DPRK leader, “… actually, the last six weeks have witnessed many signs of stabilization in North Korea, for example suggested by the lack of unusual military activities …. But this has all been neglected by the hostile US, Japanese and South Korean press. ”