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In-depth The East Asian Landscape After the Trump-Kim Summit
North Korean Denuclearization and US-China Relations

Mori Satoru [Profile]

[2018.06.29]

The historic summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un resulted in a joint statement that the countries would work toward a stable, denuclearized Korean Peninsula. But the success of these promises will depend on how the United States advances diplomatic strategy from now on—and, more importantly, how it positions its choices in the context of America’s strategic competition with China.

The Beginning of Bilateral Talks

It has been pointed out that the United States and China have generally shared three common interests regarding the Korean Peninsula: no nuclear weapons, no war, and no collapse of North Korea. Pyongyang’s persistent pursuit of nuclear weapons over the past decades has compelled the United States to apply both military and economic pressure during crises when North Korea defied international agreements or UN Security Council resolutions. At times, the United States appeared to risk the second and the third interests for the sake of realizing the first. For China, compelling North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambition was important, but the risks of war and the collapse of the state were too grave to take. This asymmetry of priorities between the United States and China have shaped the dynamics of bilateral interactions over North Korea during the past quarter of a century.

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un issued a joint statement at their summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018, in which the former “committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK” while the latter “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Both stated that they are convinced that “the establishment of new US-DPRK relations will contribute to the peace and prosperity of the Korean Peninsula and of the world.”

Perhaps more significantly, President Trump’s remarks at the press conference following the meeting drew wide public attention. First, he said that while the withdrawal of US troops in South Korea is not part of the current negotiations, he did hope to withdraw them at some point in the future—a remark that raised questions about the future of US engagement in the region. Second, Trump announced his intention to stop joint US–South Korean wargames or joint military exercises as long as the negotiations were making progress. Trump claimed to have secured “a halt of all missiles and of all nuclear tests,” as well as the closure of North Korea’s single primary nuclear test site and the missile engine test site—promises that were not written down on paper. The announcement came as a surprise, as it represented the virtual acceptance of the so-called double freeze proposal that China had been advocating—suspending joint military exercises south of the border in exchange for a halt to the North’s weapons tests—one that the United States had rejected in the past.

Bilateral negotiations between the United States and North Korea are planned to continue, and it was explained that various aspects of the denuclearization process, including relevant verification systems, would be worked out by officials from the two governments during negotiations to follow. It is uncertain whether these talks will actually produce meaningful agreements. Therefore, any assessment of what has surfaced may be premature at best. However, in the context of US-China relations, there are several issues that merit attention when assessing further developments down the road.

Denuclearization in the Context of US-China Competition

First, the issue of North Korea’s denuclearization—which in the past was about nuclear nonproliferation—is now nested in the context of a long-term geopolitical and strategic competition between the United States and China. The administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama were driven by the strategic premise that an engagement-oriented approach would shape China to become a responsible player in the international system. This involved a general expectation that China, as a nuclear weapon state in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime, would not want to see North Korea acquire nuclear weapons. A major US task was to urge action by China, which was hesitant to apply too much pressure on North Korea due to concerns that full enforcement of sanctions could cause instability there.

These administrations were also placed under circumstances that compelled them to see China as a partner in managing the Northeast Asian region. The Clinton administration, despite undergoing the Taiwan Strait crises in 1995–96, ended up supporting China’s accession to the World Trade Organization because it saw a huge potential in China’s vast market. The Bush administration initially saw China as a “strategic competitor,” but after the 9/11 terrorist attacks saw China as a partner in the fight against terrorism, relying on Beijing to manage the North Korean issue while America was focused on its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama administration needed to closely coordinate with China on macroeconomic issues at the outset, and the president generally saw China as an indispensable partner in tackling global issues like climate change, as well as nuclear security and nonproliferation.

However, as China grew more assertive during the second term of the Obama administration, Washington’s view of the rising power gradually deteriorated. Chinese actions relating to the South China Sea and cyber conflict were seen as highly problematic, and issues such as theft of intellectual property and advanced technology, predatory economic statecraft, and political warfare against third countries became highly salient. As a result, the Donald Trump administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy made public its view that the United States had entered a long-term strategic competition with China.

The implication of this fundamental shift in the US external outlook for the North Korean issue is that Washington will have to consider whether a negotiated outcome would be favorable for the United States in the geopolitical competition unfolding between itself and China. In other words, the North Korean nuclear issue is no longer only about denuclearization or nonproliferation, but also involves geopolitical competition—the relative influence of the United States and China in Northeast Asia. Any future discussion relating to the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea, even if it remains separated from denuclearization negotiations, should be assessed in that light. US allies like Japan and South Korea will also have to assess how negotiated agreements relating to North Korean denuclearization will impact US influence in the region and weigh in accordingly.

A strategy to enhance America’s presence and influence on the Korean Peninsula after North Korean denuclearization is badly needed. President Trump’s remark about his wishes to withdraw American troops was problematic because he made it without putting forward any future vision of US engagement in the region.

  • [2018.06.29]

Professor of law at Hōsei University, where he specializes in international politics and modern American diplomacy. Born in 1972. Graduated from the University of Kyoto before earning his PhD at the University of Tokyo. Worked in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and as an associate professor at Hōsei before assuming his present post in 2010. His books include Vetonamu sensō to dōmei gaikō (The Vietnam War and Alliance Diplomacy).

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  • Is Complete Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula an Unattainable Goal?At their recent summit in Singapore, the leaders of the United States and North Korea agreed on the general ideas of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the provision of a security arrangement for the North. But their joint statement included nothing about concrete steps; achievement of these two goals will be extremely difficult.

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