Speaking at a press conference last week during his and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to South Korea, Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged renewed diplomacy and highlighted the role he hoped China could play. “China has a critical role to play in working to convince North Korea to pursue denuclearization. China has a unique relationship with North Korea. Virtually all of North Korea’s economic relationships, its trade go – are with or go through China, so it has tremendous influence. And I think it has a shared interest in making sure that we do something about North Korea’s nuclear program and about the increasingly dangerous ballistic missile program,” Blinken said, adding, “I would hope that whatever happens going forward, China will use that influence effectively to work on moving North Korea to denuclearization.”
In theory, Blinken’s comments make sense. In reality, they are naïve. Simply put, Blinken sees the here and now, but appears ignorant of those who came before him and also sought to work through Beijing in order to compel North Korea’s denuclearization. It is history I explored in Dancing with the Devil, a study of past diplomacy with rogue regimes.
The story begins on October 8, 1983, when Chinese diplomats passed the American embassy in Beijing a North Korean message expressing Pyongyang’s willingness to participate in tripartite talks. Amidst Reagan’s military build-up in South Korea, the North Korean leadership had decided to put aside its objection to South Korean participation that had been the basis for its rejection of President Jimmy Carter’s offer to mediate talks.
Optimism about North Korean sincerity was short-lived, as the next day North Korean agents sought to assassinate President Chun Doo Hwan and much of his cabinet during a visit to Burma. After the bombing, Reagan’s attitude toward North Korea diplomacy cooled. In January 1984, however, Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang passed a North Korean message to Reagan again endorsing three-way talks between the Koreas and the United States. The offer was a transparent effort by Pyongyang and Beijing to enable North Korea to escape consequences for its actions, and successful. Diplomats seek talks and are willing to put the past behind in order to avoid making history an impediment. Once again, however, North Korea was insincere. In November 1987, two North Korean agents bombed Korean Air flight 858 en route from Baghdad to Seoul, killing 115. Pyongyang’s goal was to undermine the legitimacy Seoul would receive by hosting the Olympics.
After the Olympics ended, South Korean President Roh Tae Woo announced that Seoul would end its policy of trying to isolate the north. The White House embraced the ideas and the State Department called it “a major—indeed historic—reversal of traditional” South Korean policy. For diplomats, a fresh approach could not come quickly enough. In 1980, a spy satellite spotted construction of a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, about 60 miles north of Pyongyang. Four years later, satellites detected craters suggesting North Korea was experimenting with detonators used in nuclear bombs.
Whereas Reagan had kept concerns about Yongbyon secret to keep surprise attack an option, his former vice president and successor George H.W. Bush put diplomacy front and center. Secretary of State James Baker explained, “Our diplomatic strategy was designed to build international pressure against North Korea to force them to live up to their agreements.” Diplomacy continued throughout the elder Bush’s term. On December 18, 1991, South Korean leader Roh Tae-woo announced that U.S. forces had completed removing its tactical nuclear arsenal from South Korea. Just over a week later, North Korea agreed to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treary safeguards agreement and permit inspections of Yongbyon. Over the next several weeks, North and South Korean officials signed a North-South Denuclearization Declaration in which the two Koreas foreswore plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment, and agreed not to test, manufacture, produce, possess, deploy, or use nuclear weapons. Both sides also agreed to inspections by a joint commission. Initially, it looked like Bush had found the magic formula. Baker chalked Pyongyang’s acquiescence to patient diplomacy. “American diplomacy [was] directly responsible for an end to six years of intransigence by the North,” he wrote in his memoirs.
But, while Baker congratulated himself, both Pyongyang and their benefactors in Beijing recognized Baker was desperate and concluded they could get more out of the Americans by keeping conflict alive rather and extracting more concessions. PAs North Korea defied the Denuclearization Deal, President Bill Clinton sought to leverage Beijing’s influence on Pyongyang. The problem here, however, was that Beijing was not altruistic; its cooperation came at a price. That price was to dilute demands on North Korea by watering down Security Council’s condemnation to the point of irrelevancy. China also deep-sixed Security Council action after North Korea announced that it would remove irradiated fuel rods from Yongbyon, a process that would both eliminate evidence about Pyongyang’s intentions and enable North Korea to separate plutonium.
And, as the 1994 Agreed Framework began to come apart at the seams, China’s rulers recognized they could milk the United States in exchange for the theater of keeping North Korea under control. The George W. Bush administration sought to trade “actions for actions” as it gave Pyongyang greater food aid in exchange for keeping its reactor offline. When critics such as John Bolton suggested that rewarding North Korea for defiance would incentivize bad behavior, the National Security Council argued that its dealings were different since China was now onboard. Even if China were more compliant, however, such willingness to play diplomatic ball came at a huge cost. In the waning weeks of his administration, Clinton had waived missile-proliferation sanctions on China in exchange for a Chinese promise not to proliferate technology. Chinese companies then proceeded to sell sensitive technology to Iran.
At the heart of successive State Department’s self-delusions about China was a misreading of Chinese interests: South Korean intellectuals repeatedly warned Foggy Bottom that China’s obsession with North Korean stability and Beijing’s desire to use North Korea as a buffer conflicted with both U.S. (and South Korean) interests.
Back to Blinken: The proposal to work through China to constrain and control North Korea might have made sense had successive administrations not repeatedly tried it and each time, dating back to Reagan four decades ago, failed. History did not begin with Biden’s inauguration. The United States never has a tabula rasa. There is no magic formula to success on North Korea, but certain strategies are guaranteed to fail. Relying on Beijing’s good offices both encourage China to play a double game, encouraging the occasional crisis to reap its own rewards, and enables Beijing to use the North Korea issue to drive a wedge between Washington and its chief regional allies: South Korea and Japan.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. He also regularly teaches classes at sea about Middle East conflicts, culture, terrorism, and the Horn of Africa to deployed US Navy and Marine units.