The Evolution of the North Korea Crisis through China's Eyes

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) shakes hands with North Korea's Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho before their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the 50th Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum (ARF) in Manila, Philippines

Beijing is “riding the waves” of the current crisis and hoping for a soft landing.

News of border talks between North Korea and South Korea can only be positive given the dangerous depths that this crisis had plumbed in recent months. That the New York Times greeted the peace overture in a front page editorial of their January 2 edition with deep suspicion as a ploy to break the U.S.-South Korean alliance only suggests how far afield that newspaper has drifted into the hawkish camp on nearly all national security questions. The U.S.-South Korean alliance remains strong and will hardly be jeopardized by border talks. What could break the alliance, however, is the perception growing in South Korea that Americans are willing to flirt with the possibility of initiating (nuclear) war. Such a perception can be dispelled if Americans and their leading newspapers fully embrace negotiations—a stance quite appropriate to the nuclear age—and one wholly consistent with President John F. Kennedy’s famous dictum that we should “never fear to negotiate.”

A substantial segment of the ongoing debate about the Korea crisis in the United States has revolved around China’s role, and this Dragon Eye column has endeavored over the past few years to share a variety of insights from Chinese analysts on the most crucial questions related to the crisis. The tenor of the overall debate in the United States on the question of China’s role has taken a more urgent and dangerous turn of late. Impatience has given way to disappointment, which is quickly now yielding to anger and accusations, with new threats to punish Beijing now not far behind. However, the mistake in hoping that China would take responsibility for the North Korea nuclear issue was not in overestimating China’s importance, but rather in believing that this importance somehow absolved the United States of any responsibility to take active steps toward reconciliation. To the contrary, resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue can only come about as a result of a creative and dynamic interaction that involves the the United States, China and both Koreas in a step-by-step de-escalation model that makes full use of carrots as well as sticks to defuse the confrontation.

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Although other players, notably South Korea and possibly also Russia, may now take the lead in trying to broker a peace settlement, China’s role remains prominent and this column will examine a few additional points on that critical relationship. Many in both the West and in China have read the visit of Song Tao, President Xi Jinping’s special emissary to Pyongyang back in mid-November, as an utter failure, since he was refused an audience with Kim Jung-un. Chinese reporting from Global Times [环球时报] on November 19 does indeed suggest that Beijing had hoped for such a meeting. During my own visit to Beijing in early December, moreover, I encountered significant disappointment (and even shock) among Chinese specialists that this meeting did not occur.

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