Expecting a big step from China
Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has become a litmus test for China’s global leadership.
The international community has overcome another war scare despite all the rhetoric and provocations by nuclear-armed North Korea to raise tensions around the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has once again demonstrated that it can be unruly and near-neurotic due to the extraordinary and unique nature of the regime, but at the same time can act as shrewdly as possible for its own survival. No doubt the recent crisis originated from Pyongyang’s extreme - and urgent - choice of a series of face-saving measures when faced with mounting pressure at home and abroad. But the choice has only underscored the fact that China - not North Korea - holds the most crucial key to solving the conundrum on the peninsula.
In fact, we can hardly deny that the lives and land of Koreans were largely at the mercy of global powers during the last century. We still live in insecurity today because the status quo remains the same. China - which is returning to its status of superpower on the global stage for the first time in 150 years - publicly admits that it can play a vital role in settling Korean problems. The United States, which is seated between the Atlantic and Pacific, and China, spanning its influence across the Eurasian Continent and the Pacific, share global hegemony in the 21st century. It is why the world’s eyes will be closely watching the weekend summit between Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Xi Jinping of China.
As the curtain over the Cold War came down with the unification of Germany, the resolution of the Korean Peninsula could open a new chapter for the Asia-Pacific era in the 21st century. While Myanmar - which had remained an unknown in Southeast Asia - rejoined the global community and accelerated the rise of the Asian era, North Korea remains backwardly stubborn for insisting on self-isolation by arming itself with nuclear weapons to sustain its peculiar regime. Pyongyang also failed to see that it could do the biggest damage to its patron China with nuclear diplomacy to bargain with the U.S. by triggering a nuclear arms race in East Asia. No superpower would yield its status as the only nuclear power in East Asia and tolerate detonation of a nuclear device within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of its borders.
It is ironic that North Korea only confirmed China’s hardened position when it suddenly dispatched an envoy to Beijing ahead of the scheduled U.S.-China summit. Now, Beijing’s new leadership appears to be divorcing from its old passive and customary ways to play a more active role on the global stage befitting its newfound status and responsibility. China is in a better position to take the initiative in solving problems related to the peninsula than the United States, whose foreign agenda is crowded with urgent problems elsewhere in the world. During a visit to Beijing in April, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized that Washington supported China’s leading role in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner through the China-led six-party talks based on goals set in the Sept. 19, 2005 joint statement. In other words, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has become a litmus test for China’s global leadership. Under such circumstances, Pyongyang would have to make a practical choice out of the two options: It must either accept Beijing’s advice to return to the six-party dialogue and peaceful diplomacy - if it wants to go on receiving China’s patronage and aid - or jeopardize its relationship with its only ally.
Chinese President Xi laid out what Beijing wants to do when he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s special envoy Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae. In the meeting, Xi underscored that the six-party nations - two Koreas, China, the U.S., Japan and Russia - should resume the multinational denuclearization platform which fell apart when Pyongyang walked out in 2008 and that all parties would have to work hard toward ensuring peace and security in the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia.
In a recent interview with the JoongAng Sunday, Beijing University professor Wang Yizhou predicted that Pyongyang will surrender its nuclear weapons if three conditions - normalization of ties with the U.S., a security guarantee for its regime and economic aid - are met. The wishes are exactly in sync with the 2005 joint statement where the six parties agreed to help and cooperate to disarm North Korea’s nuclear weapons, ease its security concerns, normalize international relations and rebuild its battered economy. The two Koreas must eventually revive their common goal for peace based on the fundamental principles of South Korea’s 1989 manifesto proposing co-existence of the two regimes under one community.
The U.S. and China now agree to the two-state solution proposed two decades ago as the ideal arrangement for the peninsula and cooperation to pave the way for the Asia-Pacific era. Foreign policy - especially summit diplomacy - is required to take up the historic role of drawing a consensus on lasting regional peace and denuclearization as well as acting out specific measures and procedures to realize the goal. It is important for the regional partners to demonstrate the will and build mutual trust to proceed on the common path. The upcoming summit meetings between Obama and Xi as well as Xi and South Korean President Park Geun-hye could be the starting point. We expect China to make a big step for the future of Northeast Asia.
*The author is former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hong-koo