Authors: Wang Li & Petro Shevchenko*
On March 8, the whole world was stunned by a breaking news that “Kim Jung-un invites Trump to meet”, which was followed by a confirmed message that “Donald Trump has agreed to meet Kim Jong Un by May”. What a mystery!
However, if people look carefully into what have happened on the Korean Peninsula since the beginning of 2018 or even before, the détente has loomed and grown steadily. True, it is still too early to conclude which country has been acting as the pivot during the whole issue, but one thing is clear that for a long time, China working with Russia and the international society has consistently called for a peaceful resolution to the DPRK nuclear crisis through talk rather than coercion; and therefore has sincerely proposed a “suspension–to-suspension” approach, urging the DPRK to suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the suspension of large-scale US-ROK military exercises. Even though this position has been questioned by some criticism including Trump’s own words that “if China decides to help, that would be great. Otherwise, we will solve the problem without them”, China has never retreated from its bottom-line and also never be shaken in belief that the core of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue is about security, and the settlement of which hinges on direct talks between the U.S. and DPRK, if the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue is to be resolved by peace.
As the Korean nuclear issue has involved six powers directly, from the global powers to the regional powers, and from the ruling powers and the rising powers, leaders of those countries have obligations not to avoid reality. They actually control whether there will be nuclear war or peace with North Korea. Kim Jong Un is one such leader, along with his top military officers. Donald Trump is another, along with the chain of command under him. Xi Jinping is surely the key figure since he has reiterated China has firmly adhered to the goal of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and no war or chaos would be allowed on the Peninsula as well. Due to all these, it is better to see that the turnaround on Thursday has come from a process, even prior to the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Olympic game. That is the nature of diplomacy with an emphasis on prudence, continuity and patience as well.
On March 6, during the meeting between Kim Jong-un and envoys from the ROK, both sides agreed to advance the latest step of an Olympics-driven rapprochement on the Korean Peninsula and an inter-Korean summit of the two leaders would be held in late April, the first such a summit since 2007. Clearly, President Moon has sought to use the PyeongChang Games to open dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang with a view that the U.S. should lower the threshold for dialogue and the DPRK should show its will to abandon its nuclear drive. Once again, this is in effect China’s position on the Korean issues from the very beginning. However, despite so far the dialogues between the Koreans have revealed an in-depth views on the issues for easing the acute military tensions on the Korean Peninsula and activating the dialogue, contact and cooperation, the key player on the Korean issue has been the United States rather than others including China and ROK.
As the solo superpower in the world affairs since the 1990s, the United States has become arrogant and to certain extent they are even aggressively indifferent and uncertain about how to shape a foreign policy to guide this power. The leaders of the White House have been mistaken in belief that a power to destroy means a power to lead and control, as a result, they have involved into more conflicts globally than any countries today. As the most powerful country in the world, the U.S. has caused much more hatred and concerns over the regional and global security issues. In response to the détente between two Koreas, the United States still plans to press ahead with potentially provocative joint military exercises with the ROK, as a senior administration official said on Tuesday, despite a possible diplomatic breakthrough with Pyongyang, it is only natural that “our routine defensive exercises will resume.” In contrast, it is reported that “Kim Jong Un understands that routine US-ROK military exercises must continue, while he agreed that there would be no additional nuclear tests or ballistic missile launches by DPRK as long as the talks are held to realize the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and normalize the countries’ bilateral ties.”
President Trump did hail “positive” intra-Korean talks. He even said that “I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un” in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in January. Yet, VP Mike Pence and strong conservative groups have argued the United States would continue to apply “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang and that all options were “on the table” until the U.S. sees evidence that the DPRK is taking steps toward denuclearization. The arrogance and ambiguity demonstrated by the United States are incompatible with the nature of diplomacy that highlights the reconciliation, consultation and in particular all respective parties’ legitimate concerns. Now given that Kim Jung-un would like to meet Trump without condition, the United States should act more modestly and make all efforts once again to play the role of the peacemaker.
For sure, this is also not a smooth way because the right-wing and the cold-war mentality groups in the United States are very reluctant to share their interests and the ruling status with the others of the world. On the one hand, they argue that “Trump is a deal maker and probably believes he can single-handedly convince Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear weapons. A Trump meeting with Kim presents both risks an opportunities.” On the other hand, they believe that “Kim Jong Un’s desire to talk shows sanctions the U.S. administration has implemented are starting to work.”Therefore, the U.S. can pursue more diplomacy, but also keep applying pressure ounce-by-ounce. Given that DPRK has repeatedly used talks and empty promises to extract concessions and buy time, the U.S., Japan and South Korea in particular must insist upon that all sanctions and maximum pressure must remain. As Trump said after the latest missile test by DPRK, “this situation will be handled.”
China is not only the closest neighbor of the DPRK, but also the largest trading partner of the ROK. Moreover, on the recent ease of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, it is self-evident that China’s “suspension-for-suspension” proposal has worked. As Chinese FM Wang Yi stated that “China’s proposal has proven to be a right prescription for the problem as it has created the basic conditions needed for improving inter-Korea relations.”In order to move forward dialogues on the Korean nuclear issue, China has urged that a denuclearized Korean Peninsula serves the interests of all parties, including China and other members of the international community. Yet, to that end, all relevant parties should “demonstrate their seriousness about resolving the issue” and bring the situation back to the track of peaceful dialogue. Both history and common sense teach us that peace comes out of diplomacy rather than by force.
*Petro Shevchenko (from Ukraine) is MA research fellow in Diplomacy, Jilin University