How to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue: growing concern but little consensus between China and South Korea regarding the role of the U.S.

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Nanjing: Since its first successful nuclear test in 2006, North Korea has made significant advancements in its nuclear capabilities. According to the Global Times, residents of Northeast China’s Jilin Province experienced the strong tremors of a 6.3-magnitude earthquake caused by North Korea’s sixth nuclear test back in September. Despite its traditional role as a friend of the Kim regime, even Beijing seems to be losing patience.

With the escalation of tension in the region, both China and South Korea are striving for greater cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue.

On the cusp of President Trump’s visit to Asia, a high-level Sino-R.O.K. bilateral dialogue was held in Nanjing concerning how to respond to the challenge of North Korean nuclearization. This event showcased the Chinese government’s strong commitment to a collaborative and peaceful resolution of the D.P.R.K. nuclear crisis.

Among the attendees were high-ranking retired diplomats, military officials and academics from top-tier institutions in China and South Korea.

The day-long conference focused on Sino-R.O.K. relations and their impact on the North Korean nuclearization as well as the possibility of enhanced Sino-R.O.K. cooperation.

In spite of growing bilateral concern regarding a nuclear North Korea, there seems to be little agreement between China and South Korea with respect to the level of United States involvement. While both sides want to see the D.P.R.K. nuclear issue resolved peacefully, the lack of consensus regarding the role of the United States limits the potential for collective action.

On the Chinese side, there was strong criticism towards the way the United States has handled the issue. A description of President Trump and Kim Jong Un’s recent escalation of threats as a “chicken war” garnered laughter and nods of approval from other Chinese panelists and students around the room.

In the opinion of a respected Chinese academic specializing in Korean peninsular studies, North Korea is developing nuclear weapons to demonstrate its military strength to the United States. He believes that this may be to convince Washington to negotiate. However, President Trump seems reluctant thus far to agree to negotiation in any form. The above participant also criticized South Korea for its “bandwagon strategy” and its overdependence on the U.S. military. In contrast, he stressed that while China has surpassed all requirements set forth by the United Nations, increased sanctions will not necessarily lead to the cessation of the D.P.R.K. nuclear weapons program.

A retired high-level Chinese military official urged the United States to take responsibility as the initiator of the D.P.R.K. nuclear crisis. He stated that the United States’ long-term hostility towards North Korea, its inability to maintain the agreed framework, its yearly joint-military exercises, the installation of THAAD in South Korea and its threats to destroy North Korea have only achieved the opposite effect of what was originally intended. Instead of encouraging North Korea to halt or abandon its nuclear weapons program, these measures have made Pyongyang feel that nuclearization is the only way to guarantee its survival.

For this reason, the same participant urged South Korea to increase its self-reliance and uncouple itself from the American “war chariot.” In his opinion, the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance brings more drawbacks than benefits to South Korea, for example the loss of sovereignty over its national defense and increased difficulty building friendly relations with regional neighbors like Vietnam and Russia.

The South Korean side had a different perspective. A retired high-ranking South Korean diplomat claimed that neither the United States or China have done enough to resolve the issue. In his view, Washington has been too focused on the Middle East and the Iranian nuclear issue, whereas Beijing has historically been more concerned with keeping the Kim regime afloat rather than finding a solution.

A respected South Korean academic specializing in international policy studies acknowledged that, while South Korea and China both feel increasingly threatened by North Korea, they have very different views regarding the role of the United States in the region. He went on to stress that, in response to the growing threat of attack by North Korea, South Korea wants to expand its military capabilities. While Seoul does not want a war with the North, it sees no option but to prepare for the increasingly likely prospect of military conflict, including the possibility of a joint U.S.-R.O.K. offensive against Pyongyang.  

In spite of bilateral commitment to proactive dialogue and open communication, Beijing and Seoul still cannot seem to agree on a united path forward. Rather than fostering a spirit of cooperation, the role of the United States remains a point of contention for both sides. Without a more impartial attitude, it seems unlikely that there will be any meaningful change in policy towards North Korea.

Sarah Heywood is a first-year Certificate student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies.

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