Despite the call by both China and Russia to restart the stalled (read: deceased) Six-Party Talks, it should be pointed out that those talks have an overwhelming burden of baggage associated with them that would most likely prevent anything of value coming from them, even if they could be resurrected.
Talks involving all regional players – including the U.S. – are indeed desperately needed, but for them to be effective, a new sponsor is required and neutral ground would work best – perhaps Europe. But there is something the United States needs to fully comprehend going into such talks.
The fact is China is not going to do much heavy lifting in getting Pyongyang to budge on issues that are close to China’s existential needs. China does have the ability to influence North Korea by stricter application of existing sanctions or just plain curbing all means of support for the rogue regime. And there is little doubt that Pyongyang has sorely tried the patience of its only ally and patron in conducting its recent nuclear and missile tests.
… China does not want an unsettled group of foreigners that might ignite latent feelings of Korean nationalism in those three northeast provinces
Even though China could bring about the collapse of North Korea, it will not do so simply because it is not in its own interests. China, as so many realists have already explained, does not want a collapse of the Kim regime that would unleash a flood of refugees from North Korea streaming into Northeast China. There are at least three reasons for this: First, China does not have the financial and social resources to deal with such an influx. Second, China does not want an unsettled group of foreigners that might ignite latent feelings of Korean nationalism in those three northeast provinces where there is already a heavy population of ethnic Koreans. Finally, China does not want a pro-Western frienemy on its doorstep.
In light of this, it should be understandable why China is not about to initiate any action that would create chaos on its own doorstep. As for any exploitable influence that China is willing to wield, that has been steadily diminishing since Kim Jong Un assumed power in late 2011. Consider the results of a poll of North Korea experts published in July 2014 by the Ilmin International Relations Institute of Seoul. The experts were from China (12), Europe (13), Japan (17), Russia (13), South Korea (35), the United States (25) and other areas/countries (6).
When asked whether pressure by Beijing on Pyongyang would be a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue, even though 56 percent of U.S. experts believed so, absolutely none of the Chinese experts did. Furthermore, when asked whether engaging with North Korea would be of benefit, only 4 percent of U.S. experts thought so, while 33 percent of the Chinese experts thought so. Inexplicably, when a policy of both engagement and containment was discussed, 76 percent of the U.S. experts thought that would be useful and only 67 percent of Chinese experts did. However, with regard to which country would be most influential in dealing with North Korea, 51 percent of South Korean experts and 56 percent of U.S. experts cited China. On the other hand, 67 percent of Chinese experts named the U.S.
There is a message in these data: Due to its own security concerns, Beijing does not have “usable” influence on North Korea, and Washington is the one to engage with Pyongyang. Discussions are undeniably in order – and the one country with which North Korea desires talks most is the United States.
This brings us to a recent article by a former self-admitted “mid-level bureaucrat” who recently claimed that in talking with North Korea, anything is negotiable. While many issues are indeed clamoring for discussion, one thing is decidedly not on any impending agenda: Kim Jong Un refuses to engage on nuclear disarmament, the very thing that the U.S. insists is the only topic in which it is interested in discussing. The result is a regrettable standoff that has existed for years.
I fully agree with the commonly-held conclusion that American foreign policy on North Korea has been an abysmal failure
While I cannot agree with some assessments that a few portions of U.S. negotiations with North Korea in the past were successful, I fully agree with the commonly-held conclusion that American foreign policy on North Korea has been an abysmal failure. After 20-plus years of jibber-jabber, Pyongyang has nuclear bombs and is working feverishly on both land-based and submarine-launched delivery systems. There has been no meaningful, lasting “success.”
Note well, however, that this does not mean the U.S. ought not meet with North Korean leaders to discuss the multitude of other issues that cry out for resolution – some of which are enumerated below – and on which progress might be possible. By discussing issues considered by the U.S. to be of “lesser importance,” other opportunities might arise and successes in such negotiations could lead to breakthroughs in “more important” areas.
“Starter” discussions could be held on annual – or constant – reunions for families separated by the division of the country at the end of World War II or during the Korean “conflict.” Another issue is how medical services from outside countries can address pressing health problems such as malnutrition, tuberculosis and STDs – all of which are widespread in the North. Yet another is practical guidance on how market capitalism can be utilized to improve the lives of ordinary citizens. I am certain that readers can think of many more.
Even though the U.S. stubbornly insists that the only topic open for discussion is the denuclearization of North Korea, it ought to be clear by now that Pyongyang is not going to surrender its nukes and missiles. It is equally clear that the current U.S. strategy of “strategic patience” really means that “we don’t know what to do, so we will ignore it.” If North Korea is ignored for just a couple more years, it will have a usable delivery system for its nuclear weapons stockpile. Let us all hope that the next U.S. administration better understands the problems of Northeast Asia and is able to apply a policy of both containment and engagement.
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