Nixon’s China, Lee’s North Korea
On Feb. 21, 1972, United States President Richard Nixon made an unexpected trip to China. The trip was a turning point in China-U.S. relations, and helped encourage China to open its doors to its Cold War enemies.
U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger was the instigator of the trip. As a political realist, Kissinger insisted that the United States set aside ideological differences between nations and pursue a foreign policy that emphasized national interest and security.
Kissinger saw the political advantages of Nixon’s trip to China and decided the benefits outweighed any criticism the administration might get for meeting with their ideological rival.
Nixon and Kissinger understood that the trip was a way to lay the groundwork for the U.S.’s eventual withdrawal from Vietnam.
The United States thought that the Vietnamese government was likely to collapse if the U.S. army left it to the ravages of North Vietnamese troops and the pro-Communist Vietcong forces, which were supported by China. Nixon aimed to ease global tensions between the U.S. and China to bring an end to the fighting in Vietnam once and for all.
The U.S. administration also saw the trip as a way to change the direction of Washington’s Cold War strategy. Ever since China’s 1949 communist revolution, the U.S. had sought ways to separate Russia from China.
In the 1970s, the alliance between China and Russia was already strained due to border disputes, and Nixon realized he could exploit the nations’ fractured alliance further through meeting with China.
Nixon opened his arms to China, while proceeding with nuclear disarmament talks with the Soviet Union at the same time.
However, the Nixon administration’s efforts did not bear fruit right away.
Nixon had to step down from the presidency in disgrace because of his involvement in the Watergate scandal.
And China could not open its doors completely as Nixon wished because the country was suffering from the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Eventually, the United States’ normalization of relations with China was accomplished in 1979.
Nixon’s China visit had an enormous effect on the Korean Peninsula, too. For the Nixon administration, the relaxation of tensions in Northeast Asia helped lead to the reduction of U.S. forces in Korea. The visit also provided the background for the July 4, 1972 Joint Statement by North and South Korea.
On the other hand, the United Nations Commission for the Unification and Rehabilitation of Korea (UNCURK) was dissolved and the role of the UN Command was transferred to the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command as Washington recognized the communist government of the mainland as the one representing China, instead of Taiwan.
Nixon’s China presents Korea with a greater lesson to learn today.
Nixon was one of the more conservative presidents in United States history. If a politician who was slightly more liberal than Nixon had met Mao, Americans would have criticized the visit as ideologically motivated.
Like Nixon and Kissinger, I wonder whether the current conservative government of South Korea has a better chance at resolving deadlocked inter-Korean relations.
The writer is a professor at the
Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul National University.
By Park Tae-gyun