The United States-China confrontation, though not as serious as the U.S.-Soviet confrontation during the Cold War, is likely to be a protracted competition between different systems of governance with geopolitical overtones. But the U.S.-China confrontation over the Korean Peninsula is more of a regional conflict than a competition between Washington and Beijing. Denuclearizing North Korea is also a problem that has its roots in the regional conflict over the division and unification of the Korean Peninsula, though the issue is part of the global agenda of nuclear non-proliferation. In other words, none of these issues can be resolved without a final settlement of the global and regional challenges.
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden began a comprehensive review of its North Korea policy upon its inauguration in January, and completed the process at the end of April. The goal of the updated policy, stressed White House spokesperson Jen Psaki, is "the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," insisting that the administration will not cling to "a grand bargain" as former President Donald Trump did or rely on "strategic patience" as former President Barak Obama did. The new policy was described as a "calibrated, practical approach."
This policy was confirmed as a shared approach toward Pyongyang by Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at their summit meeting in Washington in late May. President Moon welcomed the U.S. policy of pursuing harmony between deterrence and diplomacy. The two presidents also referred to the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration made jointly by Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the Singapore Joint Statement signed by Trump and Kim, affirming that they are "essential to achieve the complete denuclearization and establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula." Biden also expressed support for "inter-Korean dialogue, engagement, and cooperation" to the satisfaction of Moon. These were things that the South Korean government craved.
After the U.S.-South Korea summit, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted in a televised interview, "We're waiting to see if Pyongyang actually wants to engage. The ball's in their court ... we're prepared to do the diplomacy. The question is: Is North Korea?"
By taking these steps, the U.S. government clearly stated the framework of its North Korea policy and confirmed its engagement policy of patiently exploring the deterrence-diplomacy balance without being swayed by each and every North Korean response.
On the other hand, the regional conflict on the Korean Peninsula is extremely complex for China. It is trying to counter the U.S. military presence in the region while maintaining its blood-tie alliance with North Korea and being a "partner in strategic cooperation" with South Korea. As North Korea conducted its repeated nuclear tests, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi repeatedly stressed the three principles of seeking (1) peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, (2) denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and (3) resolution of problems through dialogue and consultation.
However, after the Hanoi meeting between the U.S. and North Korean leaders in February 2019 ended in failure, the Chinese government began to emphasize principle No. 3 in particular, referring to a "peace mechanism" and a "process of political settlement." The nature of the discussions between China and the U.S. and China and South Korea is unclear, but Wang referred to the "formulation of an overall roadmap" and the "step-by-step, simultaneous action" method. Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping also insisted on promoting a "process of a political solution to the peninsula issue."
What China is wary of is an extreme increase in military tensions in the region or the extension of U.S. influence to North Korea. This Chinese posture will not change as long as North Korea remains a buffer zone close to China's heartland. However, if the denuclearization negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea progress and a peace arrangement is established on the peninsula, the rationale for the U.S. military presence in South Korea may disappear. In any case, the interests of the U.S. and China are not in head-on conflict, but rather intersecting.
On the other hand, for Kim Jong Un, the failure of the Hanoi talks came as a shock. If he had agreed to the package deal that Trump insisted on, economic sanctions would have been lifted, but Pyongyang's security would not have been guaranteed. For North Korea, gradual denuclearization was essential. As a result, Kim was forced to reaffirm his previous strategy of parallel economic and nuclear development.
Moreover, at the December 2019 plenary meeting of the party's Central Committee, which reviewed the Hanoi talks, Kim expressed his recognition that "the stalemate between the DPRK and the U.S. has become inevitably long-term," and stressed that the confrontation between the U.S. and the DPRK "has been compressed into a confrontation between self-reliance and sanctions." In short, he called for a "frontal assault" to overcome the pressure of economic sanctions through self-reliance, while preparing for a "protracted war."
In addition, in his report to the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea held in early January this year, Kim asserted on the one hand that "the key to the establishment of a new relationship between the DPRK and the United States lies in the United States reversing its hostile policy toward the DPRK," while on the other hand he set goals such as increasing its arsenal of strategic missiles with multiple warheads, increasing the sophistication of its preemptive and retaliatory strike capability by deploying nuclear submarines, and developing tactical nuclear weapons. The test launches of long-range cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles since mid-September are part of these development plans.
Diplomatically, North Korea has refused to have any contact with the U.S. and has maintained a "no response" policy to date. This reflects its position that unless the U.S. renounces its hostile policy toward North Korea, it will not respond to diplomatic talks. This hostile policy includes U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises and transferring the latest military equipment to South Korea, and economic sanctions through United Nations Security Council resolutions. The current North Korean position, however, does not necessarily mean that North Korea has abandoned denuclearization negotiations with the United States.
As shown in the three recent statements by Kim Yo Jong, a vice department director in the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, North Korea first pointed the finger of blame at South Korea, but then positively evaluated Moon's proposal at the UN General Assembly to declare a formal end to the Korean War, and suggested the possibility of another inter-Korean summit. Perhaps Pyongyang is trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul by promoting the North-South dialogue. Moon's proposal is for an end-of-war declaration by either the three parties of North and South Korea and the U.S., or by four parties including China, but North Korea may accept the inter-Korean summit and propose to the outgoing South Korean president an end-of-war declaration by just the two Koreas.
(By Masao Okonogi, professor emeritus, Keio University)