Changes in Sino-U.S. Relations and North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Game
Dong-A Ilbo Column 2009-09-22
Professor Emeritus, Korea University • former Minister of Foreign Affairs
While the U.S. suffers through the global financial crisis and as Asia appears to be experiencing a reconfiguration of its power structure, China is managing to catch up with the U.S. economically. At first, it was thought that the coming era would be comprised of a shared leadership system between United States, China and Japan or a so-called era of troika; but nowadays, people are increasingly predicting that the new era will bring about the rise of a G2 structure between the United States and China.
“Troika,” or the three-party leadership system consisting of the U.S.-China-Japan, is an alternative idea that was introduced by Japan in order to limit the possible formation of a G2 system. Although China reacted with skepticism to Japan’s idea at first, it seems that China has reconsidered and decided that the three-party consultation system could be useful to China for establishing a foothold in U.S.-Japan alliance relations.
The United States probably thought that it had nothing to lose from the new power configuration because in theory the format could bring together both Japan and China under one roof, making it easier for the U.S. to strike a balance between the two. However, if the troika power structure were to be become a reality, many important issues that impact the fate of Northeast Asia and the Korean peninsula could become decided by a third party and, therefore, create enormous burdens for Korea.
Although many important policy-makers in the Barack Obama administration are in favor of the troika power idea, it seems unlikely that the idea will be implemented in a smooth manner. This is due to the wide perception gap that exists between China and Japan. China not only mistrusts Japan, it also does not want to share a Northeast Asian regional leadership position with Japan. Taking into consideration the election of Yukio Hatoyama as the new Japanese Prime Minister, and the birth of a new government led by the Democratic Party of Japan, it will take relatively a long time before any conclusions can be reached on the troika power structure.
The formation of a G2 structure, in which the United States and China exercise joint leadership, is posited as an alternative to the idea of a troika. The concept of a G2 system relies on the premise that the U.S. will acknowledge the rise of China’s relative national power and its stake in the leadership structure; China, on the other hand, will accept the responsibilities commensurate with its status as a world power as well as respect the status quo. From a U.S. perspective, among those who debate about whether the U.S. should engage or contain China, the G2 idea represents a victory for the proponents of engagement theory.
North Korea signaling for bilateral talks with the U.S. – multilateral with China
Japan, without a doubt, both rejects and feels wary about the idea of a G2 structure. But the real obstacle to the G2 idea lies with China itself. China does not seem to welcome the debates on the G2 concept. A top Chinese official whom I recently met referred to the G2 idea as a continuation of past containment policies under a different guise, and even criticized the idea as being a mere slogan to contain China. From China’s perspective, the G2 debates are not considered desirable since Chinese foreign policy is based on the notion of toh kwang yang hoi (韜光養晦) -- hiding one’s light and growing one’s strength in the dark -- because it may unnecessarily give a cue to the West (especially the United States) to contain China.
While the United States and China have been involved in activities related to cooperation and containment, North Korea has embarked on a game that seeks to maintain its nuclear weapons program while simultaneously extracting economic benefits. North Korea is requesting a bilateral dialogue with the United States and, at the same time, is also suggesting the possibility of a multilateral dialogue (that is, Six-Party Talks.) Although after North Korea’s second nuclear test the United States and China vowed that they would cooperate and not return to the same cycle with North Korea of “negotiations—reward—start back at square one,” the prospects do not seem as bright as they would like them to be.
The Obama administration has made a strong claim that it will not “buy the same horse twice” meaning it will not renegotiate on North Korea’s freezing and complete dismantlement of its nuclear weapons and it will not reward bad behavior (such as the nuclear test). Instead, the U.S. is examining whether it should make a grand bargain or offer a comprehensive package in return for North Korea’s complete denuclearization. The George W Bush administration, in the past, held the same position until 2007. However, the Bush administration wound up reaching an agreement with North Korea, postponing the fundamental resolution of the problem under the pretext that it could “buy the horse if it was a new horse” and rationalized that the good behavior could be rewarded. North Korea, after reaching the agreement, in reality resorted to “salami tactics,” or slicing the agreement into smaller “action-to-action” and “word-to-word” pieces while back-loading important measures, to avoid making substantive steps towards denuclearization. It is unclear whether the Obama administration will be able to deal effectively with North Korea’s skillful negotiation tactics.
South Korea’s leading role in joint-cooperation with the U.S. and China
China cannot help but be concerned about North Korea’s nuclear weapons. North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles not only pose a direct threat to China but they can also lead to greater nuclear proliferation in the Northeast Asian region. On the surface, China appears calm. It also emphasizes its stance of maintaining peace, continuing the Six-Party Talks, and sticking to the three principles of nuclear nonproliferation. Sometimes it even gives the impression that resuming the Six-Party Talks takes priority over North Korea’s denuclearization.
In this context, South Korea should play a leading role with regard to the North Korean nuclear issue, while keeping a close eye on North Korea’s game plan and changes in the relationship dynamics of the four major powers. While the Six-Party Talks can be a means by which the North Korean nuclear issue may be resolved, the talks themselves cannot be a complete solution to the problem. Even if the parties concerned were to succeed in bringing North Korea back to the talks, they must avoid leaning towards just managing the situation without making any progress towards the complete denuclearization of North Korea; they should present strategic goals and a clear roadmap and also deal effectively with North Korea’s tactics. Since the United States and China are about to embark on increasing bilateral strategic cooperation, Korea needs to keep a sharp eye on the future situation surrounding the Korean peninsula and the changes that are occurring in the regional order. Thus, it is even more important than ever before for Korea to cooperate closely with the United States and China.