Why the world should be thanking China, not rebuking it, for its role on North Korea
John Kotch and Charles Armstrong say Beijing has used dialogue, not confrontation, over the past 40 years to promote denuclearisation and stability on the Korean peninsula
Washington’s public rebuke of Beijing for not preventing North Korea’s recent nuclear test is like blaming the ship’s captain for rough seas. It is both diplomatically counterproductive and historically inaccurate, echoing US secretary of state John Foster Dulles’ famous refusal to shake hands with premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) at the 1954 Geneva Conference. Still smarting years later, this slight was the first thing Zhou brought up in his 1971 discussions with then secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
In fact, since the end of the Korean war in 1953, China has made a remarkable transition from anti-US adversary to constructive political partner on Korean affairs, both at the UN as well as bilaterally and at multilateral talks. Initially, in the wake of the inter-Korean dialogue triggered by Sino-US rapprochement in the early 1970s, the US was on the defensive at the UN. At that time, North Korea’s third-world supporters sought to reverse the international body’s traditional support for South Korea, seeking Pyongyang’s unconditional participation in the UN debate as well as its membership in the UN and its agencies, while at the same time criticising Seoul as a US client state.
China assisted greatly in damping down this overheated political atmosphere by helping to ease the timely dissolution of the UN Commission for the Unification and Reconstruction of Korea without recrimination, while preventing the unconditional termination of the UN Command, as Pyongyang demanded. North Korea baulked at Kissinger’s proposal for “alternative armistice arrangements” to replace the UN Command, which would have shifted primary security responsibility to the two Koreas. Kissinger later credited Chinese intermediation.
Kissinger’s diplomacy also extended to his prescient proposal for cross-recognition by the respective allies of both Koreas. Unfortunately, at that time, Moscow and Beijing were competing for influence in Pyongyang and weren’t willing to accept such an arrangement. However, two decades later, as the Communist bloc was collapsing in the early 1990s, first Moscow and then Beijing recognised Seoul.
Then foreign minister Qian Qichen (錢其琛) – concerned about the geopolitical asymmetry that would leave Pyongyang isolated and further endanger security – prodded then secretary of state James Baker to also recognise Pyongyang. Baker’s refusal, on the grounds that the North had not yet complied with its international nuclear reactor inspections obligation, has remained a consistent US policy – refusal to recognise North Korea until it dismantles its nuclear programme – and has ever since impeded the development of a multilateral peace arrangement.
Later, China played a constructive role at the four-party talks in Geneva (1997-1999), convened to seek a peace agreement formally ending the Korean war. When the North scuttled the talks on the grounds that the US troop presence in South Korea was not on the agenda, former vice-foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan ( 唐家璇 ) personally lobbied chief North Korean delegate Kim Kye-gwan, noting that “the ship of four-party talks had set sail” and despite “stormy weather” would eventually reach the safety of port. To this day, a peace agreement has yet to be reached.
Finally, China hosted the six-party talks (2003-2008) on North Korea’s nuclear programme, including the two Koreas, China and the US, as well as Japan and Russia. Although these talks have been in hiatus since 2009, they underscore China’s continuing commitment to find a solution to the nuclear impasse and thereby enhance security. To be sure, China has its own strategic interests on the peninsula, not identical to those of the US and other parties. Beijing opposes North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme but it also wishes to avoid instability and conflict on its borders.
Rather than rebuke Beijing for what it has not done, it’s time to appreciate the constructive role China has played – and still tries to play – in working towards a peaceful, multilateral solution to the Korea problem.
John Kotch, PhD, is a political historian and former journalist. Charles Armstrong is professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University. They are co-authors of the article “Sino-American Negotiations on Korea and Kissinger’s UN Diplomacy” in the journal Cold War History