Time for the US and China to get on the same page on North Korea’s political future
John Barry Kotch says a Sino-US joint understanding on policy options for dealing with Kim Jong-un’s regime would go a long way to easing tensions, and a group of Chinese and American officials could help the two reach a consensus
Following a gruelling 12-day, five-nation jaunt around Asia – the longest trip of his presidency – Donald Trump returned to Washington in high spirits, albeit dogged by the investigations into links between his campaign and Russia. That was capped by the recent arrest and indictment of key campaign aides, preventing him from even a brief sit-down with Russian President Vladimir Putin to jointly advance a North Korea agenda.
Still, while long on symbolism and short on substance, Trump hit all the right notes on his security to-do list: shoring up relations with key US allies South Korea and Japan vis-à-vis North Korea and striking the right balance with Beijing, a would-be partner on North Korea. Trump has met both allied leaders multiple times since taking office, hosting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House, as well as huddling with both on the sidelines of the G20 in Hamburg in July and at the UN in New York in September.
However, the contents of a bland joint statement at the G20 stressing “agreement on a common strategy to confront the threat of North Korea and ensure the security of Northeast Asia and the United States” have never been publicly divulged. And while aerial and naval shows of force shadowed the presidential entourage while in the region, they are no substitute for signalling how the US might respond to the next provocation. That leaves the playing field wide open for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to lay down the next marker, be it a nuclear test or missile launch.
Trump was unequivocal in his speech to the South Korean National Assembly, stating that, “We will not permit America or our allies to be blackmailed or attacked.” But he also missed an opportunity to put Kim on notice by channelling president John F. Kennedy’s declaration at the height of the Cuban missile crisis that: “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
Translation: “An attack on one is an attack on all”; Washington would regard an attack by North Korea on South Korea and/or Japan as an attack on the United States requiring an appropriate response.
As to diplomacy with China, while a good time was had by all during a lavish state visit for which the Chinese president “pulled out all the stops”, no new ground was broken apart from marginally ratcheting up sanctions without mention of an all-important oil cutoff.
Trump got off to a smart start in corralling Chinese President Xi Jinping in April at their Mar-a-Lago mini-summit, making clear that a mutually beneficial relationship would turn largely on Xi’s willingness to exert enough economic and political pressure on Kim, forcing him to back down from an increasingly dangerous “nuclear high”. However, this has yet to happen on Trump’s watch.
Given existing geopolitical realities in East Asia, the risk of proliferation is both real and growing with the three declared nuclear powers of China, Russia and the US currently in or around the Korean peninsula. Meanwhile, a fourth nuclear outlier, North Korea, is waiting in the wings, potentially triggering two additional nuclear powers within a decade. Inasmuch as both South Korea and Japan have sizeable stockpiles of plutonium from large-scale nuclear reactors, as well as the expertise required to produce a bomb within a year, Beijing must decide whether regional proliferation poses a greater risk than the possible loss of a buffer on its border.
A Sino-American understanding on Korea’s political future could go a long way towards easing such concerns. Just as Barack Obama and Xi succeeded in cobbling together a common position on climate change leading to the Paris climate accord, a “wise men” working group of former US and Chinese officials could consider policy options for dealing with Pyongyang and report to the two leaders.
It might include former US presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger, former Chinese presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, and former state councillors Dai Bingguo and Tang Jiaxuan, evincing a new seriousness.
Each of the above brings impressive credentials to the table. Following Sino-US rapprochement engineered by Kissinger, relations were normalised on Carter’s watch, while Clinton reached a breakthrough agreement on ending enmity with the Kim regime, even if it didn’t last.
On the Chinese side, Dai was a peripatetic intermediary with Pyongyang during his tenure as state councillor while Tang, the Chinese representative to four-party talks in Geneva (1997-1999), went the extra mile in pressing Pyongyang to remain at the table to reach a peace treaty or peace mechanism. A white paper from such authorities would make for unpleasant reading in Pyongyang.
John Barry Kotch is a political historian and former State Department consultant