The armistice, an imperfect end to combat operations among multiple combatants in the early days of the Cold War, was and remains unstable. The People’s Republic of China, through the People’s Volunteer Army, signed the Armistice. They also signed a treaty with North Korea in 1961. If Mao exerts any residual influence from his mausoleum, it may matter to China that Mao’s son lies in a martyr’s cemetery in Pyongyang. China is also North Korea’s largest trading partner. China has deeply held national interests in Korea and in Asia, and their own set of lousy options to manage. At a minimum they will have much to say about any agreement, let alone an actual treaty to resolve the conflict. They do not favor a collapse of North Korea, something that ultimately affects their sanctions enforcement.
China’s negotiation through action—creation of facts—is already underway. New historical sovereignty claims over the South China Sea emerge based on a newly-discovered map dated to 1951. China is installing missiles on its newly-built features in the Spratly Islands. China still pressures Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and imposes costs on Japan with repeated aerial and sea incursions into Japanese territory. Taiwan is pressured through PLA Navy exercises in the Taiwan Strait, aerial intrusions by PLA Air Force aircraft, and now even threats to foreign commercial airlines over their maps. China’s civil aviation is eroding past understandings of operations in and around Taiwan. Renewed economic and political pressure is applied to South Korea over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) installation. U.S.-China trade talks recently started, perhaps with major consequences for the strength of the liberal international global order created following World War II. Chinese cooperation on peninsular issues will not be a charitable donation—they will have a price.
Russia’s interests are less clear, but the demographic challenges of Russia’s Far East will ensure active involvement. As a member of the Six Party Talks series, Russia will be looking for opportunities globally as a price for support. More assured access to the sea is an enduring Russian objective. Russia will likely seek yet more sanctions relief, restoration of their lost diplomatic presence in the United States and an end to U.S. pressure elsewhere on other matters as payment for support.
The Republic of Korea, Japan, and Taiwan fear a separate peace. Campaign rhetoric that demeans the value and contribution of allies, gratuitous trade pressure, and U.S. “personalization” of North Korean issues with no mention of allies raises anxiety. Taiwan fears becoming a bargaining chip for China’s support of a settlement in Korea. This possibility is often mooted in academic discussions.
Unmentioned in popular denuclearization discussions is the massive North Korean arsenal of conventional tube and rocket artillery in deeply buried and hardened shelters in the Kaesong Heights just north of Seoul, the mega-city that is South Korea’s capital. Estimates of weapons counts vary, but judgment that this can devastate the city with millions of casualties is unanimous. Any agreement must take account of North Korea’s conventional threat and how it may be rendered safe. Or at a minimum deterred.
Hazards and challenges abound. The connections among many issues offers a wicked problem. The North Korean nuclear issue is one bookend, the global international liberal order is the other. Perhaps we won’t get a resolution from a day or two of talks, but a path and a process would be helpful. North Korea, along with its friends, China and Russia, have fundamentally changed the status quo. The current crisis offers opportunities to solve that problem, to act not only here, but throughout the region and beyond in solid partnership with our allies.
Wallace C. Gregson, a retired Marine and former assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs (2009–11), is currently senior advisor at Avascent International and senior director for China and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest.