The Evolution Of The North Korea Crisis Through China's Eyes

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.”

True, that observation did precede the latest round of sanctions (Dec 22), which in turn followed North Korea’s latest ICBM test (Nov 29). A relatively comprehensive Chinese language survey of the sanctions issue by Shanghai researcher Hao Qunhuan [郝群欢] appeared in the October 2017 issue of the journal International Politics [国际政治]. Raising a number of questions with the sanctions approach, Hao writes that “The North Korean economy has on its own capability for resistance and also for rejuvenation.” [朝鲜经济自身具有抗打击能力与修复能力] He cites North Korea’s evident focus on technical education, “an obviously improved … electricity situation,” and a renewed focus on “people’s livelihoods.” [民生经济] Hao also says that sanctions reinforce unity within North Korea’s internal politics. He makes the fascinating observation that Pyongyang is now seeking “to cause more North Koreans to believe that China’s participation in the UNSC sanctions amounts to abandoning China-North Korean friendship, and is a major reason for the deterioration of the North Korean economy.” [要使更多的朝鲜人认为中国参与联合国安理会制裁是对中朝友谊的抛弃,也是朝鲜经济恶化的重要原因] Not surprisingly, he reiterates China’s long-time stance that Beijing is unwilling to exercise sanctions pressure to the point that such measures endanger North Korean regime stability or threaten people’s livelihoods. He does warn: “… sanctions can also cause an aggravation and acceleration of the spiral-type vicious cycle of nuclear and missile testing” on the Korean Peninsula. [制裁又使其变本加厉地推进核导试验的螺旋式恶性循环].

Sanctions may be a useful instrument to pressure Pyongyang to come to the table and make a favorable deal. It is quite plausible that the latest round of sanctions might have caused Kim Jung-un to reevaluate and precipitated the more reasonable position in the New Year, including the potential thaw surrounding the Olympics. Nevertheless, Chinese and American diplomats need to think (together) about carrots as well as sticks. They may follow the advice of Hao Qunhuan discussed above and had better also consider the caution of long-time Korea watcher Andrei Lankov. He warns that the new, much tougher sanctions could indeed prompt revolutionary upheaval in North Korea: “If the top leaders start losing the internal war and see themselves as doomed, they may decide to go out with a bang, not whimper – perhaps by using their nuclear weapons to attack neighboring countries and even the United States.” He even posits that “China … will not be out of harm’s way, either …”

China’s diplomacy has thus far not succeeded in making a breakthrough in the present nuclear crisis. Beijing has made constructive proposals, such as a “double freeze” that should be carefully evaluated in Washington and allied capitals. Whatever the outlines of an eventual agreement, China will be able to contribute much to its successful negotiations and implementation. China can offer generous economic assistance and security assurances (up to and including conventional weaponry), as well as crucial experience and technical capabilities with respect to arms control and verification (of proliferation safeguards, for example). While many Chinese strategists may be resigned to “riding the waves” and thus attempting to minimize the impact of the Korean issue on China. Nevertheless, the global community needs Beijing’s skilled diplomats to once again intensify their efforts to resolve this crisis in the very heart of East Asia.

U.S. policy should also be cautious and constructive. Keeping in mind, of course, that tweets are wholly inappropriate to a full-blown nuclear crisis, rash criticism of any inclination to negotiate is exactly the opposite of what is needed at this delicate moment. A former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs was quoted in the New York Times on January 4 as suggesting in response to the possibility of inter-Korean border talks that, “if the South Koreans are viewed as running off the leash, it will exacerbate tensions within the alliance.” Such a condescending and demeaning metaphor comparing South Korea to a dog held by a tether embodies much of what is wrong with the “Blob” in Washington and their conception of the Korean problem specifically, as well as U.S. strategy more broadly. A more humble approach is now required: one that puts a premium on listening and talking, rather than grandstanding.

Lyle J. Goldstein is Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the United States Naval War College in Newport, RI. You can reach him at The opinions in his columns are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. government.

Image: Reuters.

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