The coastal metropolis of Dalian in China’s Liaoning Province is an interesting vantage point to appraise the major strategic changes under way in Northeast Asia. The bustling shops and sparkling malls belie the reputation of a sleepy northeastern region choking on unreformed state owned enterprises. From various sites downtown, one can behold the striking sight of two Chinese aircraft carriers side by side. A couple of piers over, several large destroyers are being fitted out, including the vaunted Type 055, which some describe as the Dreadnought of our contemporary world. The rather new city subway system is impressive and an efficient light rail line snakes south of the city past numerous, large scale high-tech campuses to the historic port of Lushun [旅顺港口]—once known as Port Arthur. The blood-soaked hills around that famous anchorage at the southern tip of the Liaodong Peninsula, formed the epicenter of a clash of civilizations in 1904–05 when Japan and Russia struggled for mastery of the region, including on the Korean Peninsula. A stark reminder of changing times is that the small harbor at Lushun is now full to bursting with mostly new Chinese frigates and submarines.
Gazing to the east into the unexpectedly blue Yellow Sea, one could imagine—beyond the in-shore islands with their forbidding cliffs—the mysterious coast of North Korea less than two hundred miles in the distance. It is only a short hop (via Shenyang) on Chinese high-speed rail [高铁] down to the North Korean border at the Chinese city of Dandong, where I visited the remnants of a bridge destroyed by U.S. bombers in December 1950. Even as Chinese TV news offered minute-by-minute coverage of the summit of Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, the border area appeared to be remarkably calm. The police presence seemed minimal, as crowds of Chinese tourists thronged the Yalu River promenade. North Koreans (visible from the large pins on their lapels) were hardly to be seen on the Chinese side. Over on the North Korean side, by contrast, almost nothing was moving aside from a few fishermen working the river with paddles and nets. In the three hours I was wandering in the vicinity of the Yalu River, I saw only a single truck pass over the one functional span in that area. If China is easing sanctions significantly on North Korea, that was not at all apparent in Dandong.
These observations may be supplemented by some assessments of Chinese scholars, who are intensely following the evolution of the delicate North Korea situation. Overall, they claimed that China’s enforcement measures continue to be very strict and they conveyed a willingness to be patient, even as the Koreas take the lead in pacifying the peninsula. Yet, there was also a clear frustration with Washington and a sense that the United States has not adequately reciprocated the compromise steps taken by Pyongyang. That frustration was similar to the point made by the scholar Lu Chao of the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences a couple of months back: “The US must take some concrete and substantive actions and should not just stop at words”[美国也应该作出具体的实际行动而不应该只停留在口头上]. He asserted that halting the joint U.S.-South Korean exercise did not go nearly far enough and expressed doubt that the United States has the “necessary sincerity” [必要诚意] to successfully conduct negotiations with North Korea. In the same report, this Chinese newspaper noted with evident satisfaction that Kim Jong-un spent Armistice Day (July 27) visiting a Chinese military graveyard in North Korea. Kim notably laid flowers at the grave of Mao’s son, who was killed by an American bomb while he was serving in the Korean War.
Another window into Chinese thinking on the evolving North Korea situation comes from a special issue (no. 5) focusing on the DPRK issue in Contemporary International Relations [现代国际关系]. While the issue came out seemingly just before the Singapore Summit, it nevertheless featured several of China’s leading thinkers on North Korea, including Li Jun [李军], chief of the Korean Peninsula studies office at the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) in Beijing. Li advocates strongly for “graduated, joint step measures,” [阶段性同步措施] and gives credit to South Korean president Moon Jae-in for altering its policy of “pressure” on North Korea and disavowing the goal of “overthrowing the regime” in Pyongyang. In a revelation of sorts, Li asserts that “secret first” meetings between North and South Korean officials took place in Kunming (in China’s southwest) during November 2017 that preceded the Olympic truce that would follow in February 2018. Li explains that economic sanctions have played a major role in getting Kim to the table, noting that “international sanctions are already impacting common citizens” and a quarter of North Korean children are malnourished. Like many other Chinese specialists, Li is convinced that Pyongyang’s new prioritization of economic imperatives is sincere. As for military scenarios, Li observes that even Steve Bannon [班农] said there are no feasible military options and so people “should forget about it” [忘了它吧]. Instead, he argues both sides should focus on developing “carrots [胡萝卜].” In the end, he concludes that the same rigor that Americans want to apply in the form of CVID (complete, verifiable, irreversible, denuclearization) should also be applied to security guarantees that are offered to Pyongyang, such that it amounts to CVIG with the “G” standing for “guarantee [保证].”
A second paper in the same volume is by Zheng Jiyong [郑继永], director of the Korean Studies Center at Fudan University in Shanghai. Zheng emphasizes how far the peninsula has come in such a short period of time—a fact that seems to be completely lost on the many hawks populating the Washington “blob.” He notes that in 2017, most observers were gravely pessimistic and that recent steps have “significantly lowered the risk and possibility of war.” In this process, he gives substantial credit to China for serving as “stabilizer [稳定器].” Zheng is more explicit than Li in highlighting Chinese economic pressure as a major factor. He observes that China-North Korea trade fell by 60 percent in 2017, and that this has hurt North Korean industry and agriculture, as well as the economically central region around Pyongyang. He further suggests, “economic collapse will overall undermine Kim Jong-un’s position [经济的崩溃会全盘打乱金正恩的部署].” Moreover, Zheng explains that Pyongyang’s flexibility has resulted from the DPRK realization for the first time that the “rear flank” [大后方], namely China, could be lost. Assessing U.S. motives, Zheng offers the interesting observation that President Donald Trump has a strong motivation to deliver success on the North Korean issue, as that would transfer attention away from “Russia gate [通俄门].” Zheng decries the so-called “Libya model” [利比亚模式] and notes that partial denuclearization maybe the only realistic possibility, for example if Pyongyang agreed to completely abandon its ICBMs. He gives China ample credit for developing the concept of “double freeze” [双暂停] and calls for that achievement to be consolidated. He urges cooperation among the great powers, and notes that only Russia, China and the United States really have the technical competence to cooperate on enforcing nuclear nonproliferation. He concludes that “China must, as early as possible, actively and completely become involved, to ensure that denuclearization does not lose momentum [中国应尽早, 积极全面介入, 确保无核化不失去动力].”
There are no shortage of skeptics among American specialists and strategists regarding the possibilities for further developing an agreement with North Korea on nuclear disarmament. And some skepticism is certainly warranted, but it should not obscure the progress that has been made to date, including the freeze on testing, the dismantling of certain facilities, as well as a crucial lowering of tensions between the two Koreas. Taking the cues of certain Chinese specialists cited above, it may be an opportune time to ask Beijing to step up. If China were to move beyond enforcing sanctions and urging restraint to a more proactive stance, this could break the current log-jam. Such steps could include (1) Chinese-led verification and (2) China’s strengthening of security commitments to North Korea, which (3) include movement of symbolic “trip-wire” forces into North Korea for deterrence purposes. Beijing could even (4) develop a “dual key” arrangement for movement and storage of North Korean nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and it could (5) reward Pyongyang by assisting in improving its otherwise weak conventional forces. In a word, this could be called the “umbrella strategy” [雨伞战略] and such a strategy has actually been discussed by Chinese specialists, so it turns out. It would be consistent with Li Jun’s call for putting emphasis on a “guarantee” of North Korean security, and would be a way to realize Zheng Jiyong’s notion that China should become “completely and actively involved.” The proposal also has the virtue that it would not rely primarily on skillful U.S. diplomacy or concessions—though both could certainly be helpful in this complex process. To state the obvious, fighting an ever intensifying trade war with China, while trying to simultaneously get a solid agreement with North Korea, presents a stark contradiction that is significantly hindering U.S. diplomacy.
To conclude, here is one more vignette from the recent China trip. Visitors to the military museum in Beijing are now rewarded with a fully renovated set of artifacts. On prominent display is a jet fighter (Mig-15) in North Korean markings that is said to have belonged to one of China’s “volunteer” aces from the Korean War. The message of heartfelt pride in China’s Korean War intervention (the “War to Resist America”) is unmistakable. In the basement of the same refurbished facility (crowded with Chinese visitors), one will find a surprisingly large collection of captured American tanks, armored vehicles and artillery pieces from that same war. These are presented as trophies today, of course, but are still haunting for the American visitor to behold. Indeed, anyone with the slightest understanding of the tragedy that befell both Koreas, China, and the United States, in those years of appalling carnage during 1950–53—along with the knowledge that any “Second Korean War” would likely be many times worse—will understand that the search for peace and stability in Northeast Asia requires the utmost creativity, determination, and flexibility on all sides.