Opportunity for renewalThe leaders of the United States and China have shown a clear difference in their views of the North Korea nuclear issue. At a joint press conference that took place shortly after the U.S.-China summit on Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama sent a strong warning to Pyongyang when he said, “North Korea has a choice: It can continue down the path of confrontation and provocation that has led to less security, less prosperity and more isolation from the global community,” Obama said, “or it can choose to become a full member of the international community, which will give a better life to its people by living up to international obligations and foregoing nuclear weapons.” In contrast, Chinese President Hu Jintao said the matter should be resolved through dialogue and negotiation.
The difference in Washington’s and Beijing’s positions is nothing new. And yet, it is rare to see such a drastic contrast in the midst of a single event. Furthermore, the rift emerged ahead of U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth’s planned trip to North Korea. This has led to increasing concerns that the international community’s handling of the North Korean nuclear issue will result in additional turmoil. Seoul also faces the greater burden of persuading Beijing.
As of now, Seoul and Washington show no discord over their approaches to resolving the nuclear crisis. Some in the U.S. administration were displeased after Lee announced his “grand bargain,” but the friction is completely gone now. Ahead of his departure to Asia, Obama said, “President Lee and I are in full agreement on the need to achieve a comprehensive resolution of the nuclear, missile and proliferation problems, and cooperation between our two governments is extremely close.” At today’s summit, the two leaders are expected to reconfirm their positions and issue a strong message to North Korea to give up its nuclear arms programs. This, however, cannot be the end of the two leaders’ discussion.
The government says Lee’s grand bargain and the U.S. proposal of a comprehensive resolution are not that different. It said that Seoul and Washington share the understanding that the process of dismantling the North’s nuclear arms must not be hindered. When the negotiations pick up speed, however, Seoul and Washington could again face discord over specific issues. That has been the pattern of the past 20 years.
During today’s summit, Lee and Obama must focus on minimizing such concerns. This is their third summit, and it is possible for them to open up and have candid discussions. Both leaders should use the summit as an opportunity to strengthen the foundation of the South Korea-U.S. alliance for the successful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.