A Chinese perspective on the Korean nuclear issue

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In this Saturday, April 15, 2017, file photo, a submarine missile is paraded across Kim Il Sung Square during a military parade in Pyongyang, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to celebrate the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, the country’s late founder and grandfather of current ruler Kim Jong Un. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)

This following is an editorial by Chinese diplomat Fu Ying, reprinted with permission from Brookings. Fu is the chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress of China. She previously served as China’s vice minister of foreign affairs and as ambassador to the Philippines, Australia, and the United Kingdom. From 2000 to 2003, she was director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Department of Asian Affairs, where she was involved in the multilateral talks on the Korean nuclear issue.

File: Fu Ying (VCG Photo)

The Korean nuclear issue is the most complicated and uncertain factor for Northeast Asian security. It has now become the focus of attention in the Asia Pacific and even the world at large. Now, as the issue continues to heat up, one frequently raised question is: Why can’t China take greater responsibility and make North Korea stop its nuclear weapons program?

China started to mediate on the Korean nuclear issue and host talks in 2003, at the United States’ sincere request. As a developing country, China upholds its five principles of peaceful coexistence. On the Korean nuclear issue, which has a direct bearing over regional security, China’s position is to strongly oppose nuclear proliferation. Upon taking up its role as a mediator, China firmly requested the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, commonly referred to as North Korea) to stop its nuclear weapons development while requesting other concerned parties, especially the U.S., to address the DPRK’s legitimate security concerns. But the deep mistrust between the U.S. and the DPRK made it very hard for any consensus or agreement made during the years of negotiations to be effectively implemented. China had been working hard to play its role both as a mediator and a party to U.N. sanctions, but it did not have the leverage to force either the U.S. or the DPRK to assume their respective responsibilities.

Without holding the key to the DPRK’s security concerns, China has no leverage to convince this foreign nation to stop its nuclear program. The U.S., which the DPRK sees as the source of threats to its security, has been neither interested nor willing to consider responding to the DPRK’s security concerns. As the two sides reached an impasse, the DPRK took the opportunity to move forward with its program and, since 2005, has carried out five nuclear tests and numerous missile tests. In the meantime, the U.N. Security Council has stepped up sanctions, and the U.S. and the Republic of Korea (ROK, commonly referred to as South Korea) have been carrying out heightened military exercises to exert greater military pressure on the DPRK. Consequently, tensions are now running high and the channel for talks is closed, and the situation is increasingly dangerous.

On the international stage, the main players are nation states who enjoy sovereign rights endowed by the U.N. Charter and international law. Powerful states may have greater influence over the international situation, but they should also bear the consequences of what they say or do. Smaller or weaker states may counter or respond to pressure from powerful states, but there is a price to pay for doing so. The international situation often evolves as the result of actions and counteractions by states over specific issues, whereby tension between states can rise and even intensify, leading the situation in an unexpected direction.

That is why China believes that peaceful negotiation is the “Pareto optimal” path. Although it may not meet the optimal demands of any party, it would bring maximal benefits to all parties with minimal cost. This would of course call for all parties, the U.S. included, to take their due responsibilities and make the necessary compromises. The reason that no results have been achieved to date is precisely because of the failure to implement negotiated agreements and the suspension of negotiations.

China remains committed to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. It has been and will continue to work to safeguard regional peace and stability. China stands for dialogue as the right route to address the Korean nuclear issue. North and South Korea are geographically connected and both are China’s close neighbors; North Korea, in particular, shares 1,300 kilometers (808 miles) of common border with China. Any military conflict or disturbance in this region will endanger peace and stability, inflict huge damage to innocent people, and may even escalate tensions beyond control. The international community has witnessed enough bitter outcomes caused by the unwise use of military action over the past decades.

This article intends to revisit the recent history of the Korean nuclear issue, including how the Three-Party Talks evolved to Six-Party Talks and then broke down—a process in which I had been personally involved at its early stage. The goal is for readers to better understand the origin as well as the trajectory of multilateral efforts regarding the Korean nuclear issue: How did things reach this point? How and why were potential moments of successful resolution missed? Hopefully recounting this period of history can be of some guidance for making wiser choices in the future.

As the Chinese saying goes, “He who tied the bell should be the one who unties it.” To open the rusty lock of the Korean nuclear issue, we should look for the right key.

The previous excerpt was part of Fu’s paper for Brookings. The following is her the conclusion to that paper:

It remains to be seen where the Korean nuclear issue is heading. There are three possibilities:

First possibility: The vicious cycle of U.S. and U.N. sanctions followed by North Korean nuclear and missile tests goes on until reaching a tipping point. For an isolated and relatively independent country such as North Korea, sanctions may exert huge pressure, but the country can hold up and will not give up nuclear development just because of them. As a matter of fact, North Korea started nuclear testing after sanctions started, and it has conducted five tests against the background of intensified sanctions. So it is not hard to see that this situation could make the issue drag on into a spiral of intensified sanctions and continued nuclear testing until Korean nuclear and missile technologies reach a tipping point. At that point, those who oppose North Korea possessing nuclear weapons would be faced with the hard choice of taking extreme action with unknown consequences, or tolerating it.

This pattern is difficult to change because of two factors: First, North Korea is determined to possess nuclear capabilities in order to ensure its own security. This has been its policy choice, and has been increasingly reinforced over recent years. North Korea has perceived external security pressure and has not been successful at acquiring a security guarantee, despite having attended different forms of peace talks. The events in other countries like Libya have also affected Pyongyang’s thinking. Secondly, the United States is unwilling to make any compromise and refuses to make a deal with North Korea, and this has become a politically correct view, especially in the military and strategic circles. In the meantime, the U.S. is also making use of the tension to invest heavily in strategic deployment and military activities in Northeast Asia and, therefore, cannot focus itself on resolving the nuclear issue. Given its political habits, any adjustment in policy toward North Korea would meet strong resistance. Whether President Donald Trump can free himself from the old inertia and find a way out remains to be seen.

In the U.S., there is often talk about the military option. Every time this is seriously considered, the analysis invariably shows that, given the heavily deployed conventional and strategic weaponry across the Peninsula, military action, big or small, would cause huge civilian casualties and results that are hard to control. Keeping the military option on the table also threatens stability and is a source of mistrust among the countries involved. As the situation gets closer to a tipping point, it is all the more important for the U.S. to carefully calculate its moves and for China and the U.S., as well as other countries concerned, to better coordinate on future steps.

Second possibility: The North Korean regime collapses—which is what the U.S. and the South Korea want the most. The U.S. has long taken a stance of non-recognition and hostility toward North Korea, with regime change as its main goal. This was also one of the fundamental principles of President Obama’s policy of strategic patience. To a large extent, the persistence of the U.S. in intensifying sanctions while giving no chance for talks had the intention of pushing North Korea to undergo internal changes. In the U.S., contact and dialogue with North Korea are often regarded as helping the regime and hindering changes. That is why North Korea firmly believes that the U.S. will not change its hostile policy and, therefore, that it should take a strong position to resist. The reality is that the Korean economy has already passed through its most difficult time. Kim Jong-un, after taking up the mantle as North Korea’s top leader, has stabilized the domestic situation. Though North Korea’s domestic policy and behavior have caused wide resentment, the expectation of regime collapse as a solution to the Korean nuclear issue may not be realistic in the short term.

Third possibility: Talks and serious negotiations restart, which may ease or even resolve the nuclear issue. Admittedly, this is harder now as mistrust between the U.S. and North Korea has grown deeper over the years, and the ups, downs, and many setbacks throughout multilateral negotiations have undermined the parties’ confidence in dialogue. But past experience shows the obvious benefits of talking: First, talks helped stabilize the situation and created conditions for addressing mutual concerns. Second, talking opened the way to reaching various agreements. The September 19 Joint Statement, February 13 Joint Document, and October 3 Joint Document, which were achieved through the Six-Party Talks, represent the maximum consensus among all parties and together provide a roadmap for a political solution to the Korean nuclear issue. The disruption of the talks was due to a failure to implement the agreements, and the nuclear issue has escalated in the absence of talks. It should be noted that, after years of escalation, the ground has shifted and the basis for negotiation has changed significantly since 2003. If talks are resumed, whether all parties can accept such a reality and whether they can restart negotiations without preconditions remains an open question. In other words, if some parties assume nothing has happened or try to return to the past without considering changes, it will be hard for the new talks to succeed. Currently, one realistic starting point may be a “double suspension.”

As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi explained at a press conference on March 8, 2017:

“To defuse the looming crisis on the Peninsula, China proposes that, as a first step, the DPRK suspend its missile and nuclear activities in exchange for a halting of largescale U.S.-ROK exercises. This “double suspension” approach can help us break out of the security dilemma and bring the parties back to the table. Then we can follow the dual-track approach of denuclearizing the Peninsula on the one hand and establishing a peace mechanism on the other. Only by addressing the parties’ concerns in a synchronized and reciprocal manner can we find a fundamental solution to lasting peace and stability on the Peninsula.”

In other words, China calls for parallel steps to address nuclear and security concerns.

At the most recent China-U.S. summit in Florida and the first round of the China-U.S. Diplomatic and Security Dialogue that was held on the sidelines in April 2017, the two sides had an in-depth exchange of views on the Korean nuclear issue. China reiterated that it is committed to denuclearization, peace, and stability on the Korean Peninsula, as well as a settlement through dialogue and consultation. China also said that it would continue to fully implement the U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea. China further explained to the U.S. side its proposals of “double suspension” and a “dual-track approach of denuclearizing the Peninsula,” stressing its hope to achieve a breakthrough for resuming talks. China also reiterated its opposition to the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system. During the summit, the two sides confirmed the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as a common goal, and agreed to keep close communication and coordination on the issue. This gives hope for a better understanding between China, the U.S., and the other parties concerned, and a better future for inclusive security in the Northeast Asia region.

To conclude, China’s interest lies in ensuring a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, and preventing the disruption of peace and security in Northeast Asia and the whole of the Asia Pacific. China’s responsibility is to play a proactive role in achieving the above objectives through peaceful means, and to help bring about a peace accord, thus creating lasting peace and enabling greater cooperation in the region. China should also be firm in preventing any major turbulence or even conflict on the Peninsula. Only through dialogue can mutual security be achieved. In this way, we may help wrestle the Korean Peninsula out of its current vicious cycle and prevent Northeast Asia from turning into a “Dark Forest.”

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author are her’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of CGTN America.