A Chance to Defuse North Korea

The talks that begin on Friday in California between President Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, offer a unique opportunity for the two leaders to forge a personal relationship and frankly address major issues. Among these none is more urgent than North Korea.

During the past year and a half of under the new Kim Jong-un regime, North Korea has accelerated development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. It has even threatened to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the United States, something that it cannot yet do and is most unlikely ever to attempt but that American leaders must take seriously.

Washington has moved strongly to counter Pyongyang’s threats. Contrary to the claims of critics who say Obama has only a feckless policy of strategic “patience,” his administration has significantly strengthened military cooperation with its South Korean ally, increased sanctions pressure on North Korea’s financial system, and bolstered missile defenses of the U.S. homeland.

China has taken note of the increasing U.S. military countermeasures in response to North Korea’s provocations, but its complaints have been notably less vehement than in the past. This may reflect increasing Chinese concern about the behavior of their troublesome allies in Pyongyang and possibly even uncertainty about how long the anachronistic regime can survive.

Past U.S. administrations have engaged in considerable wishful thinking about China’s role in dealing with Pyongyang. The Clinton administration persuaded China to join four-party talks along with the two Koreas to establish a peace mechanism on the peninsula. The George W. Bush administration supported six-party talks in the belief that the United States could leverage Chinese influence against Pyongyang. In neither case was Beijing actually willing to put major pressure on North Korea.

The Obama administration, too, believes that China could have a decisive impact on Pyongyang’s behavior. More so than preceding U.S. governments, the Obama administration has sometimes implicitly criticized China for not cooperating more to restrain Pyongyang.

In recent months, however, numerous administration officials appear to have concluded that Chinese leaders are rethinking their approach. They have noted not only the increasing public and private Chinese criticism of Pyongyang, but also Beijing’s cooperation in the imposition of U.S. financial sanctions on North Korea and reported refusal to approve a visit by Kim Jong-un.

These encouraging signs offer hope for more Chinese cooperation. But if Obama is to build a personal relationship with Xi, he should disregard advice to press for immediate and extensive changes in China’s approach toward North Korea.

Chinese policy has been shaped by Beijing’s historic support for Pyongyang, both in saving it during the Korean War and as a fraternal socialist state. China also still tends to view the Korean Peninsula through the lens of its strategic mistrust of the United States. While Beijing has extensive cooperative ties with South Korea, it is leery of the possibility of Korean unification led by the South, which might well remain a U.S. ally with American soldiers possibly stationed in northern Korea.

Thus, unlike the recommendation that Obama should seek to have a discussion with Xi about the possibility of a North Korean collapse and Korean unification, we believe that Obama should use this first encounter to focus on underscoring for Xi where U.S. and Chinese interests on the Korean Peninsula overlap.

Obama should assure Xi that the United States remains genuinely open to a fair diplomatic settlement with Pyongyang as long as that includes verifiable abandonment of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. He should stress that, while the United States strongly supports eventual Korean unification, the goal of sanctions and other pressure is to persuade Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, not to bring about collapse of the regime.

Obama should also seek Xi’s support for a policy requiring that Pyongyang sincerely talk with Seoul, where the new government of President Park Geun-hye stands ready to engage in negotiations with the North to provide humanitarian aid and develop mutual confidence.

If Obama is able to develop a trusting relationship with Xi and reassure him of the reasonableness and limits of America’s North Korea policy, there is good reason to hope for a trajectory of increasing Chinese cooperation in dealing with Pyongyang. Failure to do so, on the other hand, may increase the odds of a major crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

Gi-Wook Shin is director of Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. Thomas Fingar served as the U.S. deputy director of national intelligence for analysis and as chairman of the National Intelligence Council. David Straub is a former State Department Korean affairs director.

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