U.S.-China peace a precondition
Despite worrisome expectations, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stopped short of conducting a nuclear test or missile launch around the 70th anniversary of the Workers’ Party’s founding on Oct. 10. It is particularly noteworthy that Liu Yunshan, the fifth-highest ranking official in the Chinese Communist Party, attended the military parade in Pyongyang for the event. Kim’s seemingly tireless exchanges with Liu were interpreted as a sign that relations between North Korea and China, frozen after the suspension of the six-party talks and the regime’s third nuclear test in February 2013, may finally be thawing. When ties between Beijing and Pyongyang are amicable, the North refrains from any show of force.
In recent weeks, rumors have spread that a few of North Korea’s powerful elites defected to the South, making it appear as though Kim’s grip on the country is loosening as he enters his fourth year in power. Taking this into account, he desperately needed to carry out a nuclear or missile test in tandem with the anniversary event, at the least to solidify his base while demonstrating publicly his power as supreme leader. But he didn’t.
Why? The answer lies with China and the United States — particularly China. On Sept. 25, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington. They discussed the North’s nuclear and missile programs, addressed as an urgent issue. That was a clear warning to North Korea not to conduct another nuclear or missile test to provoke its neighbors or the international community. It’s easy to assume that Obama, during his summit with Xi, asked for China’s cooperation in stopping provocations carried out by the regime.
Susan Rice, the U.S. national security adviser, also underscored the gravity of China’s influence over Pyongyang in a speech Sept. 21, at George Washington University. It was, of course, a request that Beijing keep its ally in check. Two days earlier, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also stressed that the members of the six-party talks were obliged to respect their commitments to the Charter of the United Nations and its resolutions. That was the second warning to North Korea.
The United States and China shared their opinions on the gravity of the North’s nuclear and missile threats, and China delivered their concerns to Pyongyang in warnings and dissuasions. As a result, the North Korean ruler proceeded with his military parade to mark the anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party, but without nuclear and missile tests. What does this mean?
The answer is clear. The fundamental precondition to resolving this issue on the Korean Peninsula is to ease tensions between Washington and Beijing. This will not be limited only to efforts to influence the North. It applies to the journey to improve ties between the two Koreas, the settlement of peace on the peninsula and eventually the peaceful unification of the North and the South. As long as China continues to push America out of the Western Pacific to restore its position as the region’s only leader, we cannot hope for sustainable improvement in inter-Korean relations and peace on the peninsula — not to mention unification.
In this reality, unification by Korea’s own efforts are fictitious. For the two Koreas’ disparate systems to converge, the de facto sponsors of the two Koreas must first transform their confrontational mode into a mode of cooperation and peace. If the two superpowers opt to confront each other, inter-Korean relations could further deteriorate depending on the position Seoul decides to take.
As long as Washington pressures Seoul to accept its demands that South Korea join the missile defense regime, deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) missile system and clearly support its traditional ally in the territorial conflict between the United States and China in the South Pacific — and as long as Seoul accepts any one of those demands — Beijing’s cooperation on the Korean Peninsula issue will evaporate.
Germany’s Willy Brandt government admitted the hateful yet undeniable reality that the first step to German unification started from Moscow, and promoted the Neue Ostpolitik (New Eastern Policy). Egon Bahr, the architect of the policy, went through nine tough negotiations, which lasted more than 50 hours from January to May of 1970, with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. As a result, West Germany managed to sign the Treaty of Moscow, and the Soviet Union accepted the Letter on German Unity as a part of the deal.
In the same vein, we must give up the romantic illusion of independent unification. The borders between the East and West Germany and the Polish-German border were first approved in the treaty, and that has something in common with our reality that peace and unification on the Korean Peninsula cannot be achieved without the consent and cooperation of the United States and China. We must accept this unshakable reality as it is.
There are roles we can play as a middle power. We must consistently improve inter-Korean relations and use it as leverage to push America and China to cooperate with each other and maintain stability in Northeast Asia. Although South Korea may be small in size, it still has the ability and room to play a leading role in the stability of Northeast Asia between both superpowers. However, we do have a serious concern. Is the current foreign minister — who intentionally distorted Obama’s remarks on the Southeast China Sea and who only shows blind loyalty to the president — capable of facilitating larger-scale strategic diplomacy in the Northeast Asia?