China, US and South Korea must harmonise their North Korea strategies, or risk being outplayed by Kim Jong-un
Kristian McGuire says if the nuclear crisis is to be resolved, Beijing, Washington and Seoul must demonstrate a unity of purpose when negotiating with the North Korean leader. This cannot happen if one is trying to sideline another
No one knows for certain how ongoing US and South Korean efforts to engage North Korea will play out. What is clear, though, is that a speedy resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue is anything but guaranteed.
Therefore, Washington, Beijing and Seoul would be wise to harmonise their North Korea strategies in preparation for drawn-out negotiations with the North, or, worse yet, a complete breakdown of the engagement efforts.
Failure to properly prepare for such eventualities will put the three parties in weak negotiating positions vis-à-vis Pyongyang and greatly diminish the odds of reaching a lasting settlement to the issue.
The United States, China and South Korea are currently pursuing three different North Korea strategies. Washington’s maximum pressure and engagement strategy is moderately risk-tolerant, holistic (in that it takes advantage of a wide range of economic, diplomatic and military tools to exert pressure on Pyongyang), and balances robust coercive measures with periodic attempts at engagement.
In contrast, Beijing’s North Korea strategy is risk-averse, limited in scope (Beijing prefers to only use economic and diplomatic sanctions approved by the UN Security Council to persuade Pyongyang to denuclearise), and emphasises engagement over pressure tactics.
Seoul, for its part, has developed a North Korea strategy that is largely derivative of Washington’s holistic approach but which attempts to bridge the gap between its ally’s hard line and Beijing’s unqualified faith in engagement.
Over the past few months, these three strategies have complemented one another, leading Pyongyang to assume a more cooperative posture.
First, tough new UN sanctions approved by the Security Council in December – combined with unilateral sanctions by the US, large-scale US-South Korea military exercises, and the Trump administration’s threats of military action against North Korea – tightened the screws on the Kim regime.
Seoul then took advantage of the unique opportunity presented by its hosting of the Winter Olympics to postpone two sets of annual joint military exercises with the US. It also used the Games as an opening for engagement with Pyongyang. In so doing, the Moon Jae-in administration effectively complied with Beijing’s North Korea strategy, which calls for North-South engagement and a “freeze-for-freeze” deal – i.e. a simultaneous freeze in US-South Korea military exercises and North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile tests.
But the freeze-for-freeze arrangement was only temporary, as US and South Korean defence officials made clear that they would resume their military drills after the Paralympics concluded in mid-March. The first of the two large-scale exercises kicked off this past weekend.
Apparently satisfied with the state of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, and perhaps worried about missing the best chance yet at reaching a peaceful settlement to the stand-off over his country’s nuclear weapons, Kim Jong-un last month finally decided to discuss denuclearisation.
Even if the North Korean leader is sincere about relinquishing his country’s most potent weapons, he won’t serve them up on a silver platter. It is in North Korea’s interests to try to play the US, China and South Korea off against one another to win as many concessions as it possibly can.
The hard bargain that Pyongyang can be expected to drive will almost certainly attempt to exploit growing Sino-US rivalry, framing the Korean peninsula as the fulcrum on which US and Chinese influence in Northeast Asia is balanced. While it might be tempting for Washington and Beijing to try to reduce each other’s role in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, it would be foolhardy to do so.
Ultimately, any lasting solution to the North Korean nuclear issue will require the support of South Korea, the US, and China. Were the US or China to somehow sideline the other in negotiations with North Korea and produce an agreement that does not take into account all parties’ security concerns, the resulting arrangement would only serve to increase Sino-US frictions over the long term.
Seoul, Washington and Beijing should therefore focus on producing a settlement to the North Korean nuclear issue that is acceptable to all. And they should keep in mind that each country will continue to pursue its own strategy, which means communication, accommodation and flexibility will be vital to ensuring that the three strategies remain complementary rather than competitive.
Beijing has done well not to let a spat with Washington and Seoul over the deployment of a US THAAD missile defence system in South Korea undermine cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue. Likewise, US President Donald Trump has wisely decided to accept an invitation to meet Kim and see whether the engagement path is ready to bear fruit. Similar flexibility and understanding will be essential going forward.
By harmonising their North Korea strategies, the US, China and South Korea can send a message to Pyongyang that they won’t be played off against one another, regardless of what happens with these first engagement efforts. Only once Pyongyang becomes convinced of their resolve and unity of purpose do they stand a chance of achieving a permanent settlement to the North Korean nuclear issue.
Kristian McGuire is an independent, Washington-based research analyst and associate editor of Taiwan Security Research. [email protected]