Many U.S. policymakers see China as the answer to North Korean proliferation. If Beijing would just tell the North’s Kim Jong-un to behave, East Asia’s biggest problem would disappear.
Of course, it’s not that simple. To be sure, the People’s Republic of China has influence in Pyongyang, but the latter always has jealously guarded its independence.
Still, the current regime does not appear to be as stable as its predecessors. Powerful Chinese pressure, if backed by economic sanctions, might encourage now incipient opposition.
The China-North Korea relationship goes back to the Korean War. Although, Beijing no longer hides its dissatisfaction with the North, the PRC is not yet willing to abandon its sole ally.
Its reluctance is understandable. Violent conflict within the DPRK, mass refugee flows across the Yalu, loss of Chinese investments, and a united Korea hosting U.S. troops all are possibilities no PRC government desires. China’s interest is almost purely negative, avoiding what the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea could become.
Yet China also recognizes that the status quo is not just uncomfortable, but untenable. In fact, President Xi Jinping has met six times with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, but not once with Kim. Chinese academics and analysts, as well as advocates on social media, routinely criticize the DPRK.
The North’s hallmarks are proliferation, brutal repression, instability, and war threats. Pyongyang recently declared that it was strengthening its nuclear arsenal. Both Washington and Beijing would benefit from a “new” north of some sort, whether independent or reunited with the South.
Which suggests the possibility of a modus vivendi between the U.S. and China.
However, a deal will require the PRC to take the lead. Unfortunately, U.S. officials are inclined to lecture Beijing about what the latter should do. China must tell Washington that cooperation is possible, but that Beijing requires guarantees before taking tougher action against the North.
The big issues would be process and endpoint. China should indicate its willingness to go along with the U.S. to change the North’s behavior, and government, if necessary—if the PRC is protected from the consequences.
Only Beijing could decide on the necessary conditions, but several obvious issues include financial support for refugees, acquiescence to Chinese military intervention post regime collapse, guarantees for existing economic deals, U.S. troop withdrawal from a united Korea.
South Korea also would have to be brought into any discussions, but the ROK’s warming relationship with Beijing suggests that Seoul would be receptive to a deal. Unlike the U.S., the South does not attempt to dictate relations in Northeast Asia.
Washington should respond positively to any Chinese overture, since North Korea has become one of America’s no-win problems. Despite presidents having insisted for at least two decades that Pyongyang cannot be allowed to become a nuclear state, it has done so.
Despite having no great strategic interests post-Cold War in the Korean peninsula, the U.S. maintains an expensive garrison in the South and remains a constant rhetorical target of a bizarre, unstable hereditary communist regime in the North. Despite urging China to deal with the problem, Beijing has shown no interest in taking the DPRK out of America’s hands.
But it would be worth much to the U.S. if the PRC did so. As I point out for China-US Focus: “The U.S. could drop North Korea from its enemies list, turn South Korea’s defense over to the South Koreans, reduce overall military commitments and spending, ease tensions with Beijing, and improve East Asian security without pervasive American military involvement. Washington could even avoid the stigma of being a supplicant if Beijing proposed talks.”
North Korea is a challenge for both the U.S. and China. Cooperation between the two offers the best hope for maintaining peace on the Korean peninsula. Beijing should propose talks. Then the world’s two greatest powers would have an opportunity to cooperate to solve their common problem.