Lack of Optimism Despite Rare US-China Stand on North Korea

By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaking on the phone as he celebrates the launch of a satellite-carrying rocket in Pyongyang, Dec. 12, 2012.

Among the key topics discussed at last weekend’s summit talks, U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s leader Xi Jinping may have agreed most on North Korea.

Yet, their rare joint stand that neither country will accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state and that Kim Jong Un’s regime has no choice but to “denuclearize” provides little or no optimism for an immediate resumption of multilateral discussions or direct U.S. talks with Pyongyang aimed at ending its nuclear weapons drive, officials and experts say.

For any denuclearization to take place, there must be international consultations on how the unpredictable North Korea can abandon its illicit nuclear activity and receive aid in return.

But how can such talks take place when the country has proclaimed in its constitution that it is a nuclear weapons state and when Pyongyang has repeatedly said that it will never under any circumstances abandon its nuclear weapons?

The six-party aid-for-disarmament talks among North Korea, China, the United States, Russia, Japan, and South Korea have been stalled since Pyongyang walked away from the forum in 2009, stepping up its nuclear bomb-making activity and firing a series of atomic and missile tests in defiance of U.N. resolutions.

“I see very little possibility of any early resumption of six-party talks,” said Jonathan Pollack, an East Asia expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

“The basis for them does not exist at present on ... stated American policy and stated Chinese and South Korean policy,” he said, referring to opposition to North Korea’s desire to see the resumption of talks only as arms control negotiations.

'Modest encouragement'

Through such type of negotiations, it may be presumed that there is acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.

It is “heartening” that neither Obama nor Xi gave any credence to that possibility, Pollack said.

“What that implies for how you can put other kinds of pressures on North Korea—that’s a more complicated issue. I can’t really speak to what might have been discussed at the summit itself,” he said.

But Pollack maintains that the very fact that China is prepared to discuss the North Korean nuclear crisis much more openly with the United States on a bilateral basis “lends at least some modest encouragement to the belief that there can be more active cooperation in these areas.”

Applying pressure

U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon also poured cold water on the prospect of a resumption of the six-party talks, when asked whether Obama and Xi had discussed the issue during their free-wheeling discussions in southern California.

There has been no commitment from North Korea so far for such negotiations to be reconvened, he said.

“On the six-party talks, it was a discussion about the importance of any talks going forward being authentic and credible—that is, talks that would actually lead to a sensible result,” Donilon said, briefing reporters after the summit.

“And we really haven’t seen from the North Koreans ... that kind of commitment on the substance of potential talks, I think, at this point to move forward.”

Donilon said that Obama and Xi had agreed “that North Korea has to denuclearize, that neither country will accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state, and that we would work together to deepen U.S.-China cooperation and dialogue to achieve denuclearization.”

Both sides will “apply pressure both to halt North Korea’s ability to proliferate and to make clear that its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons is incompatible with its economic development goals,” he said.

Agreement 'oversold'

Some groups doubt whether China would have made such deep commitments.

Bruce Klingner, a North Korea expert at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, said the Obama administration may have “oversold” what was agreed to by the two leaders, particularly about China agreeing with the U.S. to step up pressure on North Korea.

After studying various Chinese statements on the summit, he said, Beijing does not have that same phraseology.

Chinese statements were typically more blend and simply repeated Beijing’s usual calls for dialogue to resolve the nuclear crisis, said Klingner, who once headed the Central Intelligence Agency’s Korea desk.

He likened the U.S. post-summit statements to those made after a U.N. Security Council meeting in March at which international sanctions on North Korea were expanded following its third nuclear test.

Washington had characterized the sanctions as extraordinary and said that China had agreed to the tough new measures.

But Klingner pointed out that even during the most recent deliberations at the U.N. Security Council, “China has been obstructionist and part of the problem rather than part of the solution.”

Choe's visit

Klingner said he also noticed differences in post-meeting statements issued in Beijing after North Korean envoy Choe Ryong Hae met and gave Chinese President Xi Jinping a handwritten letter from Kim Jong Un last month.

Private Chinese statements indicated Beijing was firm and expressed displeasure over North Korean actions but the public statements were not as firm, he said.

The impression created after the meeting was that Pyongyang has decided to take steps to rejoin the six-party talks in what was seen as a victory for Beijing’s actions in prodding its ally to lower tensions.

When Choe returned to North Korea, Pyongyang reiterated its assertions that it will never abandon its nuclear weapons.

“So there can be, I think, different interpretations or different spins on what was reportedly discussed or agreed upon and that two sides can have different interpretations and certainly different characterizations as to what was discussed or agreed upon,’ Klingner said.

Moving closer

Still, some experts think the Obama-Xi summit did help bring China closer to the U.S. and South Korean policy on North Korea, especially after Pyongyang had threatened to launch a preemptive nuclear strike on the United States.

“By pushing for a U.S.-[South Korea]-[China] alignment in opposition to a nuclear North Korea, the Obama administration is reaching a crunch point in its efforts to prove to North Korea’s leaders that Pyongyang’s nuclear development efforts are regime-endangering, and that the future of the North’s economic development—and regime survival—in fact turn on North Korea’s denuclearization,” said Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

The Korea Herald newspaper in the South speculated that Beijing may have switched strategy and joined forces with the U.S. to denuclearize the North “as a key element of its grand diplomatic strategy of forming a new type of great power relationship to seek win-win cooperation, rather than confrontation.”

“China’s shift in policy was also apparently prompted by its concern over a possible nuclear domino effect in other regional countries,” amid concerns of an expanded nuclear proliferation crisis at its doorstep, the paper said.

Some reports have speculated that Japan and South Korea may move to manufacture nuclear weapons to ward off persistent threats from North Korea.

The Korea Herald called for a more active role by South Korea “in working out measures instrumental in denuclearizing North Korea.”

“It needs to strengthen tripartite coordination with Washington and Beijing, while taking a principled and flexible position in the inter-Korean talks, which will serve to gauge whether Pyongyang will discard its nuclear program and for what conditions.”

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