Get Along With the Rival, Step On the Ally

Although North Korea may celebrate the 105th anniversary of its founder Kim Il Sung on April 15 by conducting a nuclear or missile test, President Donald Trump has ordered the deployment of a naval battle group to the Korean Peninsula. The warning to the Pyongyang regime is clear. It can also be seen as a sign of renewed cooperation with Beijing on an issue that has poisoned U.S. foreign policy and destabilized the region for decades.

The U.S. president and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, addressed the issue of North Korea’s nuclear program during their meeting last weekend. Judging by the harsh editorial published on April 12 in the Chinese state-owned daily Global Times, Beijing seems ready to severely punish its turbulent neighbor if it does not cease provocations.

Essential Reconciliation

This show of firmness did not stop Trump from keeping up the pressure on Twitter. Chinese assistance in this matter would be beneficial and appreciated, but the United States would not hesitate to act alone, the White House resident tweeted. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal this week, Trump acknowledged, however, that the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang is more complex than he had imagined.

This special relationship dates back to the end of World War II and was consolidated during the Korean War of 1950-53. Beijing intervened to contain the advance of United Nations forces led by the United States. Since then, China has been the hermit kingdom’s protector, most notably consenting to provide vital economic assistance. The brutal fall of the Kim regime would be a nightmare for Chinese leaders. They believe that they should provide massive aid to prevent the country from being the source of a major flow of refugees into Chinese territory.

Worse, the fall of the Kims would open the door to Korean reunification, thus placing a powerful regional rival supported by the United States right at China’s borders. Some leaders in Beijing have even drawn a parallel with German reunification. The fall of the Berlin Wall was fatal to the Soviet Union, they recall. They worry about what would happen to Communist China if Korea reunified.

The relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang is not, however, currently in a good place. By multiplying provocations, Kim Jong Un is not heeding the injunctions of his indispensable neighbor to the letter. Chinese leaders seem less patient. Last year, they approved the imposition of tougher international sanctions against North Korea. In February of this year, Beijing suspended its imports of North Korean coal. Finally, Kim Jong Un has not yet been welcomed in China, although he has been in power since 2011.

Differences with Seoul

If Washington can agree with Beijing on a harder line toward Pyongyang, differences could arise with another key actor and a long-time ally of the United States: South Korea. The May 9 presidential election should bring to power in Seoul a progressive wanting to implement a less aggressive approach toward its neighbor.

Democratic Party candidate Moon Jae In wants to return to a policy of engagement that prevailed in 1998 and 2008, as does People’s Party candidate Ahn Cheol Soo. This policy is essentially characterized by sustained diplomatic dialogue with Pyongyang and by the establishment of major economic partnerships. The South Korean conservatives in power over the last decade had abandoned this policy, saying that it had failed to halt the North’s nuclear program.

As hardline supporters, the conservatives shared, with regards to diplomatic overtures and other initiatives aimed at coaxing North Korea, the same skepticism that has been gradually imposed on Washington and adhered to by the Trump government. The arrival in Seoul of a president who wants to reconnect with a more conciliatory approach could pave the way for disagreements with Washington.

Trump’s government is ill-prepared to deal with this change. He has not yet appointed an ambassador to South Korea, and the key posts related to Asian policy remain to be filled by the State Department and the Defense Department. Contrary to the situation in the early 2000s, however, bellicose rhetoric and North Korean provocations should limit the risk of a gap between Seoul and Washington.

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