Opinions are split on whether one should hope that Wednesday’s U.S.-China summit will help jumpstart diplomacy on the long dead-locked North Korean issue. Will it be clouded by other pressing issues like the economy? Does the U.S. have leverage? Will China move on North Korea? Will the summit end in symbolic formalities or tangible results?
But the reality is that this is perhaps the Obama administration’s only real chance to make a difference since both countries will soon begin preparations for leadership transitions in 2012. The most effective way to move Beijing is to persuade the Chinese president himself by an American president, head-to-head.
The summit’s joint statement will provide essential clues about the direction of diplomacy on North Korea. But the two leaders are walking into the summit oceans apart on some key points on mechanics.
President Hu Jintao has made Beijing’s position clear in his latest joint interview to the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal – he wants to first resume the Six Party Talks and then discuss all matters of concern including Korean tensions. Washington, on the other hand, wants inter-Korean dialogue to precede the Six Party Talks as well as a sincere North Korean gesture to denuclearize prior to negotiations.
Perhaps one of the biggest sticking points is North Korea’s recently unveiled uranium enrichment program. Beijing fails to publicly acknowledge the existence of the facility and has defended Pyongyang’s right to use nuclear energy. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said “We’ve never seen North Korea’s uranium enrichment facility… The situation is unclear right now.”
But Washington wants to work with Beijing to put an end to the North’s uranium enrichment program, which has clearly violated UN Resolutions and Six Party agreements. The two sides could revert to dealing with the uranium enrichment issue at the Six Party Talks, but the question is how to get there?
The fundamental challenge is persuading Beijing to move Pyongyang. China’s top policy priority is its own peaceful development, which it believes will only be achieved if there is regional peace and stability. This is particularly crucial as Hu Jintao hands over the reins to Xi Jinping next year. This means Beijing will be especially reluctant to aggravate Pyongyang as it fears instability in North Korea could cause spillover effects in Chinese territory.
The window of opportunity for Obama and Hu to find a lead and create an environment conducive for progress on North Korea will become increasingly narrow after the summit. President Obama needs to prod Hu to help contain further North Korean provocations and help create an environment for inter-Korean dialogue and eventual six nation dialogue.
This year and the next will be an attractive time for North Korea to engage in more provocations as Washington, Seoul and Beijing become preoccupied with leadership transitions in their respective countries. It will be an appealing time for Pyongyang to shake the U.S.-South Korea alliance as well. It will also be an opportune time for Pyongyang to show its “might and power” as it approaches its own 2012 deadline – perhaps with a bang or a barrage of fireworks, or both.
Until now Washington has maintained a reactive, rather than proactive, approach to the North Korean dilemma. Its will to make progress may have grown after revelations of Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment program.
Still, Iran overshadows North Korea on the White House policy agenda.
Resolving the North Korea issue is imperative to break the precedent for other rogue actors like Tehran who aspire to follow the Pyongyang model. But how far will the Obama administration go with just two years left in office packed with competing policy priorities?
As for the first step in the future of diplomacy on North Korea, Wednesday will determine whether the summit will be a hit or miss.