Stop playing second fiddle

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Stop playing second fiddle

In an editorial on April 3, the Financial Times made an interesting suggestion to resolve the tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The British paper advised Washington to coax Beijing to play a decisive role in resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis by offering to pull out U.S. Forces from the southern side of the Korean Peninsula. That strong a carrot could only prompt North Korea’s sole patron and ally to work aggressively to pressure Pyongyang to surrender its nuclear program.

The newspaper insisted that Washington promise Beijing that it will withdraw American troops from the peninsula if the Kim dynasty in Pyongyang collapses, after Beijing obliges fully with the financial and trade sanctions in accordance with the United Nations Security Council resolutions on North Korea. It is the kind of foresight that comes from the media of a country that has been through two world wars.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry returned home after his North Korea-themed visits to Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo. His messages from the trip can be distilled to three. First, the United States remains committed to defending its allies - South Korea and Japan - no matter what. Second, Washington is willing to talk to Pyongyang if it takes genuine action toward denuclearization. A third message was addressed to Beijing - that America is willing to reward China on its active role in resolving the North Korean nuclear impasse. Washington, in other words, is suggesting that it could separately negotiate terms with Beijing for its work on taming the nuclear-armed recalcitrant state.

In a news conference in Beijing after meeting with Chinese leaders, Kerry said the U.S. could remove and ease missile defenses in the region as a kind of overture to China which has been concerned about growing U.S. defense buildup. “Now, obviously, if the threat disappears - i.e. North Korea denuclearizes - the same imperative does not exist at the point of time for us to have that kind of robust forward-leaning posture of defense,“ he said.

The U.S. military recently moved two Aegis cruisers capable of intercepting medium- and long-range missiles. It also announced that it will be sending a land-based missile system dubbed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System to Guam, a U.S. territory that is about 2,000 miles from North Korea, capable of firing missiles at enemy targets in “terminal phase” as they approach defended territory. The U.S. also said it will deploy additional ground-based missile interceptors on the West Coast to better defend itself from a missile attack from North Korea. The Pentagon will spend an extra $1 billion to increase to 14 interceptors by 2017.

Beijing has been protesting that the U.S. military buildup is a part of a “Pivot to Asia” disguised as a means to contain China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region. It suspected that the U.S. was using the North Korean threat as a pretext to bring its military might to China’s doorstep. Kerry’s recent comments could be interpreted that Washington is ready to ease China’s concerns over anti-missile buildup in the region if Beijing can use its influence over Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program.

In a press conference in Tokyo - his last stop on the Asian trip - Kerry tried to tone down his earlier comment after the media underscored the hidden message for another grand bargain between the two global powers involving the Korean Peninsula. He explained that he merely stated what was reasonable and nothing had been discussed with China. But few doubt the motive behind Washington’s overture.

In wrapping up his trip to Beijing, Kerry said the U.S. and China are committed to denuclearization in a “peaceful way.” He assured that the pledge on commitment was not “just rhetoric” and that China was “very serious” about denuclearizing. The two sides would be holding further discussions to resolve the issue, he said.

There are two options to solve the North Korean nuclear conundrum through peaceful and diplomatic means. North Koreans could either be yanked to the negotiating table or choked until they are forced to give up the weapons. But none of the options are possible without Beijing’s help. That’s why Washington is studying workable and effective bait to really move Beijing.

So far, it is all wishful thinking. Washington wants to use Beijing to solve the North Korean nuclear dilemma while Beijing needs to use its influence over maverick Pyongyang as leverage to hold power in the region. Theorists of the Chinese Communist Party visiting Seoul last week did not hide that Beijing’s ultimate goal is weaker U.S. alliances with South Korea and Japan. Beijing believes strong bilateral security ties between Washington and Seoul and between Washington and Tokyo are remnants of the cold war that threaten peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

China wants to shift the U.S.-led alliance system in the region to a China-led multi-security structure. In that context, China has been insisting at the six-party talks in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue as an experiment in the multilateral system. The Financial Times may have hit the nail on the head, but it is highly unlikely that Washington would pay that heavy a price in exchange for ending the North Korean nuclear crisis.

The North Korean nuclear problem cannot be solved without active involvement by America and China. South Korea is pushed to the sidelines. But we nevertheless should keep closely connected with Washington and Beijing and get actively involved to solve the problem. We must take the initiative and gain support from Washington and Beijing. We must stop playing second fiddle.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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