Park’s biggest Beijing achievementHow big of an impact will the recent South Korea-China summit meeting have on the denuclearization of North Korea? Will there be any meaningful progress in international endeavors to denuclearize the recalcitrant regime in Pyongyang in the wake of the summit in Beijing between President Park Geun-hye and her Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping? Has Xi assured Park that he will follow up with real actions — not lip service — on the promise on denuclearization? The answer is negative — judging from what we have heard from their joint statement and press conference following the summit meeting.
We had hoped that Xi would articulate his opposition to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in his meeting with Park just like U.S. President Barack Obama did in California during his summit with Park. The hope was primarily based on signs of change in Beijing’s attitudes toward Pyongyang among Chinese scholars, media, politicians and government officials following the power transition from the fourth to the fifth generation in Chinese leadership. The recent summit, however, confirmed little change in how Beijing perceives and approaches the thorny issue of denuclearization.
In the joint statement, South Korea stressed that it cannot tolerate North Korea’s nuclear armament and the two countries agreed to work toward the goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. In the joint news conference, President Park said, “We agreed that ‘a nuclear-armed North Korea’ will never be tolerated under any circumstances.” But President Xi said, “We agreed that the ‘Korean Peninsula’ should be denuclearized and the issue must be addressed through dialogue and cooperation.” In other words, while South Korea emphasized the denuclearization of North Korea, China highlighted the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Denuclearization of the peninsula is China’s long-term strategic goal. Beijing has its eyes on a nuclear-free Korea after unification. It is a very China-like mind-set to foresee the nuclear development of a unified Korea and the U.S. relocation of tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula. For its part, Pyongyang wants to delay its denuclearization process as long as possible in the short term and argue for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula to deter South Korea from pursuing nuclear armament over the long haul. In other words, while China champions denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula to block nuclear possession of a unified Korea, North Korea does the same in order to prevent South Korea’s nuclear armament.
As denuclearization of North Korea or the Korean Peninsula is a matter of terms in priority, it is not the essence of the problem. To South Korea without any nuclear weapons, efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula — or North Korea for that matter — shouldn’t make a big difference. Seoul has been naïve from the start or lacked a strategic understanding of how Beijing thinks and works as it hoped that President Xi would diverge from China’s traditional approach and single out the issue of “denuclearizing North Korea” in the joint statement and press conference.
In the latest summit, Beijing promised nothing new on denuclearizing North Korea. It only reiterated what it has been saying all along: Working toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through the six-party platform and dialogue. Therefore, President Park’s diplomatic accomplishment in Beijing could be deemed unsatisfactory when focusing on the issue of denuclearizing North Korea only. Nevertheless, Beijing expressed its unequivocal commitment to denuclearizing the peninsula, which reflects a significant shift in its position towards Pyongyang after its third nuclear test.
President Park’s achievements in the summit should be assessed based on what changes it will bring about on the Korean Peninsula. At a critical point in the peninsula, Park met with China’s new leader and declared a new era of strategic and cooperative partnership in a televised press conference and address. She has achieved the best possible outcome in the summit through presenting the country’s leadership and people in a favorable light to the Chinese public.
Before and after the summit, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hurriedly sent envoys to China and Russia after Beijing’s new leader repeatedly expressed a will to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula in summit meetings with his U.S. and South Korean counterparts. The recent Seoul-Beijing meeting makes up a crucial pillar on the new South Korea-U.S.-China partnership framework to resolve the Korean Peninsula issues, along with separate summit meetings among leaders of Seoul, Washington and Beijing. It is now important to strengthen and diversify diplomacy on China so that the conceptual agreement in Beijing can materialize into real action.
Since North Korea detonated a nuclear device for the third time and blasted off long-range missiles, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has become an urgent problem for us. It is imperative to consolidate a sustainable framework for talks on denuclearization. We cannot just rely on Washington’s strategic patience toward Pyongyang. Instead, we should be more supportive of Washington’s idea to polish the agreement on Feb. 29, 2012 in bilateral talks with Pyongyang where the U.S. had promised aid in return for irrefutable steps toward denuclearization. Pyongyang then had promised to stop its nuclear and missile programs as well as uranium enrichment activities and comply with international inspections on nuclear facilities.
The promises are nearly tantamount to Pyongyang’s declaration to forgo all its nuclear weapons and development programs after the six-party talks on Sept. 19, 2005. The most meaningful accomplishment from the recent summit in Beijing is China’s strong message to Pyongyang that it won’t tolerate North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and war threats against its southern compatriots.