Waiting for China to come aroundAs North Korea approaches its first Communist party congress in 36 years, its nuclear and missile programs seem to be accelerating. The early months of 2016 have seen repeated tests, launches and claims of yet more to come. In response, there has been a dramatic increase in efforts to sanction North Korea, both multilaterally at the United Nations and bilaterally by individual countries.
The depth and coordination of individual sanction efforts by the United States, South Korea and Japan suggest that the long-sought trilateral cooperation among these three regarding North Korea may have finally arrived. Furthermore, all this new sanctioning increasingly places the onus of North Korea solely on China. Indeed, regional policy toward North Korea is now effectively a waiting game: we are all waiting for China to — finally — decide that North Korea is a genuine threat to the neighborhood and take serious action.
Trilateral cooperation is a major step. Since the North Korean nuclear test this January, South Korea, Japan, and the United States have worked together more closely than ever on the Northern threat. Both President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have flown to Washington for alliance consultations, and high-level diplomats from all three countries met again on April 19 to coordinate their sanctions regime. This is real progress.
Importantly, this would not have been possible without the comfort women deal of last year. By the end of 2015, the comfort women issue had come to so dominate Korea-Japan intergovernmental relations that little diplomatic cooperation was possible on North Korea or almost anything else. The deal broke that impasse and finally made sustained South Korean-Japanese cooperation possible.
This is an important positive outcome of that deal, and it will be interesting to see how South Koreans respond, given that the deal is not very popular here. Most South Koreans wanted the comfort women issue resolved, but few feel like the particulars of this deal were fair, and the comfort women and civil society groups have broadly come out against it. So this is a tough trade-off for Koreans: Japan is now more clearly an “ally” on North Korea. In the past, it has threatened to cut side-deals with North Korea which would undermine a U.S.-South Korean common front on the North. That possibility is now over, but the cost for Korea is dropping the comfort women issue. And there is a cost for Japan as well: it can no longer seek to unilaterally resolve the abductee issue with Pyongyang. These trade-offs, in the interest of the larger goal of presenting a united democratic front toward North Korea, are the unfortunate nature of international politics.
If the long-desired achievement of a South Korean-Japanese-American common front toward North Korea is one major outcome of the past few months, the other is the now very clear isolation of China as North Korea’s last and only enabler. China has sought to obscure this reality for as long as possible. It has sought to include Russia in the six-party talks, even though Russian Pacific power collapsed decades ago. It has sought to derail a South Korean-Japanese rapprochement by stoking memories of the Pacific War. It has argued that the United States is the reason for North Korean behavior. It has fudged statistics on how much it trades with North Korea, and it has dragged its feet on sanctions implementation at the United Nations.
The goal of all these efforts is to cover the stark reality that North Korea would not be what it is today without Chinese forbearance. If we drop Russia from our regional analyses and treat the regional democracies (i.e. South Korea, Japan and the United States) as one bloc going forward, it is now blindingly obvious that China holds the key to North Korean change. Regional politics now reminds one of “Waiting for Godot,” as we all wait for China to one day wake up to the recognition of just how dangerous North Korea really is both to its own people (about whom China evinces no interest) and its neighbors as well.
There is some evidence that China is slowly coming around. For years, Chinese academics have printed op-eds in Western papers decrying North Korea. In the eight years I have lived in Korea, I have never met a Chinese student, academic or official who genuinely approved of North Korea. Beijing knows well that North Korea is a terrible place. But its hard-liners still see it as a “buffer” against the regional democracies.
What is needed now, then, is for Beijing to suffer the prestige costs of its support for Pyongyang. The democracies can sanction North Korea ever harder, but cutting the Chinese umbilical cord is the real goal. The last few months have made it undeniable that North Korea stumbles on because of Chinese support. So we in the democracies must now ensure that China is routinely blamed for North Korean behavior, as it was roundly condemned in the global media for its tepid response to the January nuclear test. When North Korea embarrasses China enough, then it will change. This is our way forward.
*The author is an associate professor of international relations in the department of political science and diplomacy at Pusan National University.
Robert E. Kelly