Now that the shirtsleeves of President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have been rolled back down, it is time to evaluate the fruits of this past weekend’s US-China summit, particularly with regards to North Korea. When compared with previous US-China meetings, there were no fashion faux pas, no hecklers, and no one accidentally referring to Xi’s home country as the “Republic of China.” Nonetheless, those looking for so-called “deliverables” on the North Korean issue were likely disappointed by the summit’s outcome.
Speaking to reporters on Saturday, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon said that, after a “lengthy discussion,” the two presidents “agreed that North Korea has to denuclearize…and that we should work together to deepen US-China cooperation and dialogue to achieve denuclearization.” While this is certainly not a negative development, it does not represent anything that the two sides have not said before, and falls somewhat short of hopes that the summit would yield a formal framework between the US and China on how the two countries plan to tackle the North Korean issue.
So, where does this leave us now? Without question, there are several reasons to be optimistic about the prospects of concrete US-China action vis-a-vis Pyongyang…
1. China’s Toughening Line on North Korea: I touched upon this in my previous post, but the Chinese government has recently given several indications that it plans to “get tough” with its provocative ally. Not only has the PRC privately pushed Pyongyang to return to six-party talks, but it has also backed up those insistences with more-concrete actions, such as supporting tougher UN sanctions, closing key North Korean bank accounts, and restricting the number of visas issued to North Korean guest workers.
2. China Has Very Good Reasons to Push for a Denuclearized North Korea: In an insightful post on his blog, Via Meadia, Walter Russell Mead argues that, besides the obvious rationale of wanting to avoid a nuclear-armed North Korea, China also has deeper reasons for wanting to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. As Mead astutely points out, a nuclear North Korea incentivizes Japan to build up its military strength, pushes Tokyo and Seoul deeper into the protective arms of the United States, and, I would add, lends further credence to the Obama administration’s “Asian pivot.” Given this, a case could certainly be made that it is in China’s geostrategic interests to push Pyongyang to denuclearize.
3. A Slightly-Less-Provocative Posture from North Korea: Though North Korea continues to repeat its commitment to maintaining a nuclear arsenal, it has, in recent weeks, avoided taking any overtly-provocative actions in the vein of its nuclear and missile tests from earlier this year. Moreover, tensions between North and South Korea seems to have cooled – the two sides recently re-opened a cross-border hotline, and met on Sunday to set up cabinet minister-level talks for later this week (though it now appears that that particular dialogue has been put on-hold).
But there are also a couple of reasons to be pessimistic:
1. How Hard is China Willing to Push? Yes, it is true that the PRC has toughened its stance towards North Korea in recent months. However, questions remain as to how much pressure Beijing is really willing to exert against its recalcitrant neighbor. The Chinese government’s fear of a North Korean collapse leading to chaos along the PRC/DPRK border, as well as resulting in a unified, US-allied Korea is an oft-cited (most recently by the AP’s Matthew Pennington) reason for Chinese inaction on the North Korean issue.
2. We’ve Been Here Before With North Korea: Avid Pyongyang-watchers will have to forgive me for seemingly stating the obvious, but here goes: historically, North Korea has had a tendency to engage in provocative behavior, dial down tensions and express a willingness to return to negotiations, only to later restart the cycle with another round of provocations. Thus, we should be careful of ascribing too much meaning to Pyongyang’s toned-down rhetoric, or its overtures to Seoul.