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

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

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.

A November 18 Global Times editorial, however, had made clear that foreign expectations for the Song visit were way too high. This editorial argues that foreign assessments “of China-North Korean relations are not necessarily objective or accurate.” [对中朝关系的认识未必都客观, 准确] Thus, it is explained, they routinely “overestimate China’s capability to influence North Korea.” Moreover, it is explained that a “miracle”[奇迹] diplomatic breakthrough of the type hoped for could only be expected when “the melon is ripe so it falls from the stem.” [瓜熟低落]. The piece suggests with evident concern that the United States has made the job that much harder by greeting North Korea’s two months of “all quiet” [沉寂] on the testing front by placing North Korea back on the list of states supporting terrorism. On the other hand, the same editorial points out that Washington has shown some flexibility, and the counterfactual is even posited about how the situation might be different today if America had articulated its “4 no’s” [四不] some years earlier, but for now the outlook perceived by the Chinese is for “ever greater pressure.” [加更大的压力] As for the Song visit to Pyongyang, the article states that the visit was an important step, but that one could hardly expect “the stalemate to be broken by a single visit.”

Indeed, a closer reading of Chinese reporting may suggest that the Song Tao visit was not a complete failure. The fact that the visit lasted for four days, and that Song met with both the Secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party, as well as a former foreign minister, does imply substantive dialogue. Perhaps it is also of significance that Song visited North Korea’s largest cemetery of China’s People Volunteers from the Korean War. Surely, this was intended as a sign from both Beijing and Pyongyang that their security ties have not dissipated entirely. Perhaps a November 20 editorial in Global Times was accurate in asserting that, “The relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang is not as good as some optimists think. It is also not as bad as some pessimists believe.”