The China–South Korea summit, as the U.S.–China summit that preceded it, is a Rorschach test allowing for greater optimism or pessimism regarding Beijing’s willingness to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem.
In both venues, Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and resolving the impasse through dialogue, particularly an early return to the Six-Party Talks.
To those who claim that Chinese leadership has become so disgruntled with its irascible North Korean ally, these words reflect a major shift in Beijing’s policy. It is argued that Beijing has implemented new pressure tactics, such as the Bank of China cutting off interaction with North Korea’s central trading bank.
Yet what has really changed in Beijing’s words and, more importantly, its policies? As part of the September 2005 Six-Party Talks Joint Statement, Beijing had already agreed to the objective of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. And how effective would a return to the Six-Party Talks be when North Korea has repeatedly proclaimed it would never under any circumstances abandon its nuclear weapons?
In March 2013, the Korea Workers Party Central Committee, the country’s highest government body, asserted that North Korea’s “possession of nuclear weapons shall be fixed by law [and] are not goods for getting US dollars [nor] a political bargaining chip.”
U.S. and South Korean post-summit claims that Beijing agreed to pressure North Korea were clearly not reciprocated in Chinese government statements. Beijing has yet to publicly state that it will increase pressure on Pyongyang. Nor has it even singled out North Korea for criticism, instead continuing its typical value-neutral script of admonishing, “No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains.”
The much-ballyhooed Bank of China action previously occurred in 2005, when it ceased dealing with North Korea after a private visit from U.S. government officials. The bank subsequently reinstated its financial relations with North Korea. China cut off fuel deliveries to North Korea during February 2013, just as it had in February 2012, February 2011, September 2006, and 2003, before always resuming them the following month.
It is often argued that Chinese policy can’t be expected to change overnight. Well, it’s been seven years since North Korea defied Chinese entreaties not to conduct nuclear and missile tests in 2006…as they did again in 2009….and 2012. It’s been three years since North Korea conducted two acts of war against South Korea. But China certainly seemed capable of implementing a quick policy change—and publicly identified the source of its ire—when Japan purchased the Senkakus Islands from a private owner.
What can China do? For starters, how about no longer turning a blind eye to North Korean proliferation that is occurring on Chinese soil? How about implementing United Nations Security Council resolutions as it is required to do? Or is it too much to ask Beijing to simply be as obnoxious toward North Korea as it has been to Japan and the Philippines?