Authors: Yang Yizhong & Paul Wang
On December 16, China and Russia proposed that the UN Security Council lift a ban on North Korea’s exporting statues, especially seafood and textile items. Tension has been rising between the United States and North Korea over the past weeks after a series of weapon tests conducted by Pyongyang and hostile rhetoric traded between the two sides. As usual, Beijing has reiterated that it hopes the two sides could meet each other halfway to push for denuclearization, indicating U.S. lifting sanctions in exchange for Pyongyang abandoning its nuclear and missile programs. Echoing China’s calling, Russia said the draft, whose measures also included the lifting of a ban on the North Koreans working abroad, was aimed at encouraging talks between Washington and Pyongyang. Yet, the White House said that the president insisted on keeping sanctions in place. And they need to see full and verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. It is clear that the U.S. position regarding sanctions has not changed. Meanwhile, Pyongyang has vowed to take an unspecified “new path” if Washington fails to soften its stance before the end of the year.
In effect, the U.S. special envoy Stephen Biegun has started his week-long trip to East Asia, first touring to Japan and then to South Korea, two key allies of the United States in the region. Not surprisingly, Washington also declared that Biegun will visit Beijing on Thursday and Friday after China and Russia proposed lifting some UN sanctions on North Korea while he called on Pyongyang to return its offer of talks, saying Washington remains committed to the nuclear talks with Pyongyang. It is held that during his stay in Beijing, Biegun will hold talks with Chinese officials to “discuss the need to maintain international unity” on the Korean Peninsula issue.
Henry Kissinger once said that in foreign affairs, the acceptance of the framework of the international order by all states involved, at least to the extent that no one party feels so dissatisfied that it expresses its anger in a provocative manner. Thus a legitimate order is by no means making conflicts impossible, but it limits their scope. Conflicts may occur, but they will be fought in the name of the existing structure and the peace which follows will be justified as a better expression of the “legitimate”, general consensus. In the classical sense, diplomacy implies the adjustment of differences through negotiation, and is possible only in “legitimate” international orders. Trump did express that he would be disappointed if North Korea continues to try to obtain what it needs by a provocative way, referring to two weapon tests on December 7 and 13. Yet, when his envoy Biegun ended a three-day visit to Seoul on Tuesday, he also said the U.S. doesn’t have a deadline and is willing to discuss all issues of interest if Pyongyang is sincere to return to the negotiation table. The signal from Washington is clear that “it is time for all parties concerned to do the jobs as Stephen Biegun and his team are here. It is well-known how to reach us. Let’s get this done.”
Diplomacy essentially speaks soft by insisting on negotiations. It is the positions of China and its strategic partner Russia, alongside South Korea which, though an ally of the United States, has proposed that the nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington remain possible when the two sides hold off any words and deeds rattling each other. During the 35-minute session at the Blue House in Seoul, President Moon requested Biegun’s continued efforts to move forward the Korean peace process. It is widely held that the latest moves by Pyongyang are not intended to deteriorate its relations with the United States. Instead, it is trying to “coerce” Washington to go back to the negotiation table and reopen talks. If there is at least one thing that Washington and Pyongyang are on the same page, it is that both of them would not like to see peace talks broken down and work towards a possible denuclearization deal. For many reasons, little progress has been made on this issue despite three meetings between Kim and his U.S. counterpart since last year. Yet, the critical difference between two parties lies in the approach of the negotiation. The leader in Pyongyang has made it clear many times that the U.S. should propose a new plan of a possible denuclearization deal before the dialogue. However, the U.S., already holding a draft in hand, is reluctant to show its initiative before the game even begins. Otherwise, Pyongyang would win the game as it would show the U.S. is coerced to accept Pyongyang’s terms, which would be absolutely objected by the hawks in the White House.
Accordingly, there comes the dilemma. Although both sides are willing to get the job done, the United States wants to propose the new plan during the talks rather than prior to it. With the year-end deadline set by Pyongyang approaching and Washington not making any concessions, it seems that Kim Jungunis tired of waiting. Trump has established good personal relations with Kim, so at least there is no hostility at the highest level. Yet, with the 2020 elections approaching, a possible new leader would bring new uncertainties. In addition, the location for the important test is the Sohae satellite launch site, which Kim has promised to dismantle at the Singapore summit. All these might be seen as Kim’s tact to issue an “unhappy” warning to Trump. But, despite all uncertainties, as a Chinese scholar observed, the impetus is always there as long as North Korea wants to lift sanctions to develop the economy, and if Trump wants to end the 70-year-long conflicts and leave the significant diplomacy legacy.
The good token should be noted, what used to drive the two side apart is the approach towards denuclearization: that the U.S. insisted on total denuclearization first while North Korea demanded that it would only accept a step-by-step and reciprocal deal. Now with the most hawkish character John Bolton leaving the White House, Washington is also softening its tone. U.S. special envoy Stephen Biegunhas been a supporter of a step-by-step deal; last week, U.S. envoy to the U.N. Kelly Craft has also stated that Washington was prepared to be flexible in how they approached the issue. True, there have been no details to reveal just how “flexible” the U.S. is prepared to be, yet the commitment to push the dialogue between the two sides is still there.
From the very beginning, China has played a unique role in safeguarding the peace of the peninsula and the whole region. More than four formal meetings in one year between Chinese leader Xi and his Korean counterpart have sufficiently revealed the pivotal and irreplaceable role of China in leading the way for denuclearization. If people are serious to read through the “Four-point” proposal by Xi during his two meetings with Kim, it is self-evident that China along with Russia has played the role in driving towards a peaceful settlement on the Korean Peninsula issue. First, China has insisted on denuclearization which needs to protect both sides’ core security interests, and Kim himself has agreed to give up the nuclear program if the US and South Korea respond to his proposal with good will. Second, since China and North Korea have resumed their friendship, Xi and Kim have highlighted the party-to-party strategic coordination as part of their shared political heritage. Considering the uncertainties in American politics, China has reiterated that the Korean Peninsula issue can be resolved only through peaceful means. Third, China and North Korea have stressed that their ties have common destinies when it comes to geopolitical issues, economic development and ideological affinities. Especially, China has vowed to stand ready to work with all the parties involved in order to adopt the dual-track approach. Thus, China has taken on great geopolitical significance in the Asia-Pacific, and it is vital that tensions on the Korean Peninsula be kept from escalating in the whole region.
In light of this, China would be able to play a constructive and fruitful role in the upcoming meetings with Stephen Biegun. Considering that among all the parties involved with the Korean nuke issues, China is the only power that has forged and continues to enhance the comprehensive strategic partnership with Russia and has maintained mutual cooperation with the Republic of Korea (ROK), let alone China’s long-time friendship and strategic alliance with North Korea. In addition, China has resumed good working relations with Japan, whose PM Shinzo Abe spoke highly of China’s role in solving the Korean Peninsula issue through peaceful means. Perhaps, the most important is that Xi and Trump have forged good personal relations as it was quoted that President Trump paid great attention to China’s stance on the Korean Peninsula issue, and is willing to strengthen communication and coordination with China to resolve the issue through negotiations and consultations. Due to this reality, it is possible that China will be able to promote the consensus between the U.S. and North Korea and all parties involved. This is the foundation of the peaceful settlement of the denuclearization on the Korean peninsula.