North Korea

When it comes to North Korea, the US should stop pointing fingers and act

Lee Seong-hyon says the notion that Beijing is responsible for keeping Pyongyang in check is nothing but a shrewd political play by Washington

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 January, 2016, 11:57am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 January, 2016, 12:11pm

China should end its “business as usual” attitude with North Korea, US Secretary of State John Kerry warned foreign minister Wang Yi (王毅). This is another familiar, if not “business as usual”, take on North Korea. Every time North Korea makes international headlines, Washington points a finger at China. This Pavlovian response should stop. On North Korea, the US, not China, should lead.

READ MORE: Pyongyang to continue nuclear tests as long as US is ‘continuously invading’ its sovereignty

It is understandable why the US came up with the “China card” in dealing with North Korea. After two decades of frustrating, fruitless negotiations, Washington felt disgusted with the regime and humiliated for the very idea of sitting across the negotiating table. “President George W. Bush felt it was ‘beneath American dignity’ to sit down with North Korea,” a former senior US official, who directly negotiated with the North Koreans, told me.

Accordingly, Washington “outsourced” the task of dealing with North Korea to China, by inviting the latter to host the six-party talks, a multilateral platform aimed at North Korea’s denuclearisation. With that, the US settled down in the back seat, while China was elbowed into the driver’s seat. Every time the car veered off course, the driver got scolded.

To justify its “back-seat” role, Washington immersed itself in linguistics, instead of political science. It began to use the term “benign neglect”, a posture for ignoring North Korea. When, however, officials realised the term was too revealing of their negligence, the Obama administration came up with a new version, “strategic patience”.

Clearly, “benign neglect,” and “strategic patience,” are not a strategy, but a recipe for doing nothing about North Korean nuclear belligerence. It reveals Washington’s self-defeating spirit and reluctance to confront the challenge. Today, we are well conditioned to the popular narrative, “North Korea is China’s problem to fix”. Even simple-minded Donald Trump’s first instinct when he heard about North Korea’s alleged hydrogen bomb test was to say, “China should solve that problem.”

China doesn’t think so. Amid growing strategic rivalry and mistrust, Beijing suspects the US seeks to use it as a hit man to topple the regime – or, “kill with a borrowed sword” (jie dao sha ren) – a clever “collateral damage” strategy of weakening China’s political position in East Asia by removing the structural “buffer role” North Korea provides. Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the US, said China wouldn’t play a Washington-scripted role when he called it “mission impossible” as he addressed the audience at the US Institute of Peace.

The much-touted “Chinese influence on North Korea” is also an overused term that should be scrutinised. For sure, China has economic influence over its neighbour, but not necessarily political influence. This distinction has often eluded attention.

For sure, China has economic influence over its neighbour, but not necessarily political influence. This distinction has often eluded attention

For instance, the North Korean all-female group Moranbong Band wouldn’t have cancelled their shows in Beijing so abruptly and insolently if Kim Jong-un had felt politically indebted, even slightly, to China. In fact, it is Washington that enjoys ample political influence with North Korea because Pyongyang evokes America’s “hostile policy” to justify its nuclear programme and solicits every opportunity to get Washington’s attention by holding Americans hostage and “demanding” that a senior US official visit Pyongyang to get them.

READ MORE: China needs to keep North Korea in check, as much to reassert its own power in the region as to maintain stability

When Obama was celebrating the TPP agreement, he famously remarked: “We can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy. We should write those rules.” Indeed, the US should stop outsourcing the North Korean challenge to a country like China. It’s time for Washington to lead the way.

The widespread “North Korea is China’s problem to fix” narrative is a brilliant piece of US public diplomacy that warrants serious soul-searching, because relying on the tactic of buck-passing goes against the very spirit of what America stands for.

During his State of the Union address, Obama proclaimed: “When it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead. They call us.” Exactly. Now, we look forward to it.

Dr Lee Seong-hyon is assistant professor at the Centre for Asia-Pacific Future Studies, Kyushu University