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The G2 Snare: Stagnation of the North Korean Nuclear Issue and the Demand for South Korean Leadershi

Cha Jung-mi


Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies

The Gap in US/China Perception and Strategy regarding North Korea…. The limitation of concrete transition strategy co-operation as evidenced by ‘Co-operative Declarations’ of a common ‘Anti North Korean Nukes’ stance

The 7th Us China Strategic Economic Dialogue held in June saw China and the US express their opinion that ‘a path of simultaneous nuclear and economic advancement could not be successful’, contrary to the hopes of North Korea. However, at the end of last May, following the trilateral US/Japan/Korea summit, where the strengthening of the sanctions regime on North Korea and the need for China’s active participation in this was discussed, China responded by disclosing its belief in the principle that ‘All parties involved in the North Korean nuclear issue share a responsibility and stake in addressing the issue through constructive efforts.’ In spite a clear basic ‘anti-North Korea Nuke’ stance and belief in playing the role of a responsible power, China continues to demonstrate an existing gap in perception and strategy. Furthermore, in response to the discussion of strengthening sanctions on North Korea, fellow 6 Party Talks participant Russia voiced its contrary view which shows that the US/Japan/ROK and the China/Russia military alliances hinder the progress of addressing the North Korea nuclear issue.

2 Years and 5 months after the February 2013 nuclear test by North Korea… In the sphere of ‘International Co-operation’ the ‘North Korean Nuclear Issue’ is still ‘Under Discussion’

On February 12th 2013 North Korea held its 3rd nuclear test which saw China’s reversal of attitude towards North Korea and sanctions, leading some to see the solid possibility of solving the North Korean nuclear crisis through international co-operative efforts. This in turn caused some optimism and expectations regarding changing North Korea and of progress towards a solution. Due to China’s earnest communication with South Korea and the US, suddenly Korea/US/China trilateral co-operation and ‘North Korean disarmament progress’ became rising new foundations of perceptions. However, nearly 2 and a half years after the 3rd North Korean nuclear test, the US/Japan/ROK and China/Russia alliances still have a huge gap in perception of the North Korean nuclear problem and the even general conditions for holding another round of ‘6 Party Talks’ are only a point of ongoing discussion while the issue is no nearer to a solution and looks to remain that way. With the incoming of new administrations in South Korean and China, there has been a ‘honeymoon’ period in which relations between the two have strengthened co-operative ties. The US and China or the ‘new superpower relations’ represent a new search for a path to co-operation while optimism ‘North Korean nuclear issue progress’ following the third nuclear test has been put on the backburner and is evaporating.

South Korea had expect that there may be an opportunity for resolving the North Korean nuclear issue following the launch of the Xijin Ping government and the resulting revision and development of US China relations but what unable to find conclusive momentum or the proper opening which resulted in settling for ‘friendly relations’ and ‘declarations of co-operation’ that could not break out of the ‘North Korean Nuclear Crisis Stagnation’. For the US, short of North Korea demonstrating a change of attitude or supporting nuclear disarmament, holding another round of unconditional ‘6 Party Talks’ is hard to imagine. On the other side, China’s response is that expectations must be lowered and conditions dropped in order to bring North Korea to the bargaining table. In short, the only thing that is likely to be continued in the near future is this situation of diverging opinions.

In 2014 China represented 90.1% of North Korea’s diplomatic interactions and thanks to North Korea’s international political isolation this dependence on China is only growing. This means that in spite of the strengthened sanctions regime of the US/Japan/ROK alliance, without the active participation of China, the effectiveness of sanctions to achieve progress towards ‘decisive change’ in North Korea is limited. In spite of China’s new attitude towards North Korea there is still and adherence to the 3 principles of ‘Avoiding War’, ‘Anti-Chaos’, and ‘Denuclearization’.[1] Instability in North Korean affairs is connected to instability surrounding China and there is a perception that it can hinder the economic development of China and therefore any efforts to exacerbate this instability through pressure or threats is still frowned upon. In conclusion, the source of China’s foreign policy strategy, in the absence of a change in North Korea strategy, a strategy using the structure of US/China or South Korea/China or even US/China/South Korea based trilateral co-operation cannot attain momentum without China itself decisively participating in earnest to work towards denuclearization as the means of addressing the North Korean nuclear issue.

North Korean nuclear crisis stagnation needs momentum for a breakthrough - The leadership of South Korea is crucial to the trilateral co-operation format and Seoul should work towards changing North-South relations

The US and China as two superpowers have different perceptions and approaches to the North Korea nuclear issue and as such the ‘ideal’ trilateral structure has in reality been unable to gain traction in progressing towards a solution, rather it has become a circular discussion without a departure point. In the face of the multitude of spheres where the two superpowers come into contact and conflict, it seems natural that these competing interests would be transferred into the discussions of the nuclear issue, making the path to progress and momentum building towards a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue a point of further disagreement. In spite of the deepening and strengthening of both South Korea/China and US/China relations following the 3rd North Korean nuclear test, the US/South Korea co-operative relationship and strategic dialogue therein means that the demands for China to play a role reflects the same old relationship structure. Given the competition, gap in perception, and strategy differences between the two superpowers, it is time that South Korea must recognize and overcome the exposed limitations of G2 ‘North Korea Nuclear Diplomacy’ by finding its own way of producing momentum itself.

To find a new direction for US/China/South Korea trilateral co-operation on the North Korean nuclear issue, South Korea needs to spread the seeds of diplomacy wide and strengthen its leadership role by searching for complimentary strategies. First and foremost, there needs to be a ‘vision and implementation strategy for North Korea’s denuclearization’ that involves an active role for China and is cognizant of the current state of international affairs and North South relations. Second, Russia and Japan must be considered, in addition with other Asian and European countries, in terms of how to realize an expansion and diversification of ‘North Korean Nuclear Diplomacy’. This quite simply means finding ways to progress and develop North Korea in all directions such as welfare, economy, and human rights in order to overcome the intractable realities that make the North Korean nuclear issue so valuable for Pyongyang as a bargaining chip. Third, it must be understood that by changing North South relations it is possible to gain momentum and demonstrate leadership in the international co-operative efforts to deal with the North Korean Nuclear Issue. If North South dialogue is initiated and opportunities for co-operation created, a new phase of international co-operation for ‘North Korean denuclearization’ will be launched. Fourth, the current state of North Korea and the direction of nuclear development must be definitively and concretely analyzed and assessed in an objective manner in order to impress upon international society the urgency of the situation and the necessity of a definitive solution. Therefore, instead of international society only paying attention and applying pressure in the event of a provocation by North Korea, which as we have seen has resulted in a slow decline in the level of reaction over time and stagnation in finding a solution which amounts to a form of permission, this vicious cycle must be ended by South Korea taking initiative to address this state of stagnation by becoming more active and dedicated in its analysis, responses, and diplomacy in order to initiate changing and assume the responsibility required of it in this situation.

Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies Issue Brief #49 (2015/07)

Translated by Lonnie Edge

*The views expressed in herein do not necessarily represent the views of Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies or the editorial board of North Korean Review.

[1] 전쟁불가, 혼란반대,비핵화

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