Protesters in the streets of Seoul after North Korea carried out hydrogen bomb tests, picture from The Daily Mail
It is common knowledge that China considers North Korea and its nuclear proliferation as two separate issues. Although China is actively involved in the UN sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, it continues to recognize the geostrategic value that North Korea brings to China’s national interests. As such, China’s actions are firmly rooted in its national priorities, making a clear distinction between the North Korean state and its nuclear weapons capacity.
Despite the ongoing UN sanctions on North Korea, in May China welcomed Ri Su-yong, vice chairman of the Worker’s Party of Korea, for a visit which even included a meeting with president Xi Jinping. During their talks, Xi Jinping made no mention of denuclearization, and neither did Ri Su-yong. The nuclear-economic plan envisaged by North Korea was simply replaced by an evasive term deemed a ‘new trans-sectorial plan’. Then in October, the Chinese vice foreign minister visited Pyongyang to discuss border issues, further proof that, amid a push by the international community to enforce sanctions, China is taking a much different stance.
Meanwhile, South Korean diplomats were making diplomatic inroads among African states in order to isolate North Korea and consolidate the image of a united international community opposing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. As a nuclear-equipped North Korea signifies disaster for the South, maximum mobilization of means and resources in order to dissuade North Korea from possessing nuclear weapons is an obvious course of action. However, the genuine problem lies in the aftermath.
Nuclear weapons represent the last line of defense for North Korea, and as a result any voluntary abandonment of nuclear weapons appears inconceivable. Even if such an event was to occur, would both Koreas be able to share the fruit of peace given the current circumstances? The author remains skeptical on this point. China’s insistence on parallel negotiations for denuclearization and a peace accord will never achieve complete denuclearization of North Korea, and neither will the proposal coming from a faction of US policymakers for a modus vivendi entailing a temporary freezing of North Korea’s nuclear facilities. However, if North Korea was to be offered economic incentives that would offset the costs of temporarily halting its nuclear development, it would definitely reach out to China or even the United States. Multilateral talks between South Korea, China and the United States in search of finding a common solution to North Korea’s nuclear weapons seem to be a distant reality at the present moment, as current relationships between these countries have been tense over the issue of personal sanctions against Kim Jong Un, as well as over the dispatching of THAAD missiles in South Korea. Nevertheless, both China and the United States have things to benefit from the current state of affairs. China can continue to maintain its close ties to North Korea and enjoy the geostrategic protection that North Korea provides. On the other hand, the United States can use the tense situation on the Korean peninsula to reaffirm its place as a strategic ally in the ROK-US alliance, thereby balancing out the growing Chinese influence on South Korea. Such has been the traditional tactic of big powers in order to level out their power game, where one minimizes direct conflict if the situation does not seem favourable to oneself. The resulting stalemate has only been detrimental to efforts towards reunification.
It is time for South Korea to clearly distinguish the issues of North Korea and reunification as being separate problems, and consequently formulate distinct policies corresponding to each issue. Nuclear proliferation and human rights violations should be dealt with according to international law. In the meantime, South Korea should prepare for reunification as a separate objective. It is important to note that the idea of parallel preparation for reunification does not endorse China’s current position of simultaneous negotiations for denuclearization and peace accords. China’s desire for a stable Korean peninsula is fundamentally different from South Korea’s objective for a consolidated and permanent peace with the aim of reunification. Whereas denuclearization is simply an accompanying aspect of a peace accord in China’s perspective, denuclearization is a precondition to any peace accord for South Korea. As South Korea maintains this position vis-à-vis North Korea for eventual discussions, it could also start taking steps to improve inter-Korean relations by taking humanitarian measures and forging a framework to promote positive relationships with North Korean residents. As a result, the issue of ‘North Korea’ can be dealt accordingly with firmness, whilst positive measures to promote reunification are simultaneously pursued. The current paradigm in which the climate of inter-Korean relations is determined by the South’s reactions to northern provocations must be fundamentally reshaped. Just like the joint declarations of 1970, 1973, 1988, 2000 and 2007, negotiations and agreements of historical importance can always be made with the South’s initiative. It is time for South Korean policymakers to realize that the best form of defense is an ‘offensive’, or proactive, one, in which South Korea takes the initial forward step rather than reacting to provocations.
***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.