한국어 | January 16, 2017
January 16, 2017
The next step in solving the North Korea issue: Getting Beijing onside
The next step in solving the North Korea issue: Getting Beijing onside
China is the one key to solving the North Korea problem – so how do we secure Beijing’s cooperation?
December 29th, 2016

Often the biggest hurdle to overcome in dealing with a problem is to recognize that there is a problem. A close second is defining the problem correctly. Following that, understanding the various factors of the problem must occur. The U.S. seems to have a problem with all of this.

Finally, some Pyongyang watchers are starting to realize that North Korea is not about to relinquish its nuclear weapons or cease its intercontinental missile deliver system development. The senior U.S. intelligence chief, James Clapper, admitted in an October speech on international affairs that such an objective is “probably a lost cause.” That is a good first step, recognizing that one’s goal is actually unachievable.


So, if finally admitting that North Korea is not about to relinquish either its nuclear weapons or the means to deliver them is the first step in dealing effectively with Pyongyang, what is the next step?

Some analysts and commentators are on the leading edge of that epiphany. A few are beginning to understand that China has only one reason to help the West solve its problem with North Korea: to keep these problems off its doorstep.

It has many more reasons not to. This recognition was most recently expressed in an article advocating efforts to cajole Beijing to help Seoul and Washington in getting Pyongyang to, at least, freeze its nuclear and missile programs.

As well-meaning as that writer was, there is a strong probability that the history between China and the U.S. will get in the way. Beijing has good reason to not trust the West, reaching all the way back to the 1800s.


Even though China is quite exasperated with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, Beijing sees no good way to stop the rogue country without jeopardizing its own security interests. China does not like sanctions because if they are effectively enforced, North Korea will become unstable.

If the regime collapses or is defeated, then China would have the Western-leaning Republic of Korea, and perhaps U.S. troops, on its northeastern borders along with great numbers of refugees crossing into its country. That is completely unacceptable.

mao photo

The shadow of China’s history looms over any cooperation with the West | Photo by Philip Jägenstedt

For the other reasons as to why China is not inclined to work with the U.S. on other solutions, once again one must look at the history to grasp how China’s resistance to help the West was formed. Go back to the mid-1800s when European powers began to engage China.

Beijing has good reason to not trust the West, starting all the way back in the 1800s

Britain instigated the First Opium War in 1839, which was settled in 1842 by the Treaty of Nanking – the first of several treaties imposed by Britain and seen as being unequal – and the Second Opium War between 1856 and 1860 that weakened the Qing Dynasty.

Add to that the Russian incursion into Manchuria at the time of Anglo-American participation in the Boxer Rebellion from 1899 to 1901 that eventually led to the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. Then in World War II, Western allies sided with Chinese Nationalist forces against the ultimately victorious Communists. Later, during the Korean War, UN forces fought against Chinese troops that reacted when those foreign forces were overrunning North Korea.

All this leaves the Chinese quite ill-disposed toward Western powers.

More recently, even though it has not ratified the UN Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS), the U.S. sides against China regarding its claims for much of the South China Sea. Further, Washington sides with Tokyo in its dispute with Beijing over the small groups of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea known as the Senkakus to Japan and the Diaoyus to China.

China views these activities in its nautical front yard as efforts to hem it in, preventing open access to the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Now, President-elect Trump has engaged in a telephone communication with the leader of Taiwan, an island that China sees as a renegade province, part of China and certainly not a separate nation-state.  


Despite all this, Washington has the audacity – or perhaps it is merely naïveté – to expect Beijing’s assistance in reeling in the loose cannon that is Pyongyang. Consider this in light of what we already have seen with regard to the claims by the U.S. that it will not accept North Korea as a nuclear power. These are nonsense words, childlike in denying a reality that very clearly exists.

In the framework of formal, old-style diplomacy, perhaps Trump will be a breath of fresh air, ridding the Western world of the fantasies that North Korea is not a nuclear power and that China will do the heavy lifting for us on controlling North Korea. We truly have run out of options – all have been discussed ad nauseam elsewhere – and I mention this only to bring up a new point.

china north korea photo

The view from China | Photo by Shinsuke JJ Ikegame

There is a term in sociology that might well apply here: “wicked problem,” meaning one that either cannot be solved or is one to which the solution is unacceptable for any number of reasons. It is beginning to look like North Korea is one such wicked problem.

The window of opportunity for a preemptive strike is all but closed. Forcing a regime change by others means would be a lengthy and drawn-out affair with only nominal chances of success. Sanctions on or information propagation into North Korea will not get the job done anytime soon. What, then, is left?

In the framework of formal, old-style diplomacy, perhaps Trump will be a breath of fresh air

Perhaps the only remaining option is attempting to make China a key player in other ways. This would involve significant diplomatic effort, something that has not been successfully employed in Asia by Washington recently.

For example, back-channel negotiations would have to convince Beijing that, in the absence of Chinese interference on the Korean Peninsula, Washington would promise to not go above 38th parallel during any chaos resulting from a regime collapse in North Korea.

Further, the U.S. would have to make assurances that it would quickly withdraw its 28,500 troops from South Korea once any reunification turmoil had subsided. In addition, the U.S. would have to convincingly state that it would not stand in way of South Korea becoming a more independent sovereignty.


This does not mean that the U.S. would have to abandon its role in Asian affairs or its interests in the region. As China once said, the Pacific is large enough for both. But for its part, Beijing would have to play nice with others in the region.

Regrettably, China’s moral development has not progressed sufficiently to understand that, for Beijing does not accept inconvenient international conventions. Thus, when the West negotiates with China, it has to be from a position of power. For example, the U.S. and its allies might demonstrate through a show of force that UNCLOS does indeed apply in the South and East China Seas.

China must relinquish its irredentist view of Asia

Just as all road no longer lead to Rome, China is no longer the “central country,” perhaps a better translation of the Chinese ideographs commonly taken to mean “Middle Kingdom.” Regardless, the territory ruled by China has shifted over the centuries, and Beijing no longer controls much of what it continues to think it still does. China must relinquish its irredentist view of Asia.

But wouldn’t compelling Beijing to acknowledge UNCLOS undermine any attempt at getting Beijing to assist in managing North Korea? The two efforts would seem to work against one another. Given the current state of affairs and a new U.S. president that apparently knows little about Asia, neither task seems achievable. Yet, what other choice do we have but to try?

Featured Image: Presiden China Hadiri APEC 2013 by APEC 2013 on 2013-10-05 16:16:47

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  • Tony B

    This is the most important statement here: “China’s moral development has not progressed “.

    They are no fan of human rights so they’ll ignore the plight of the people in NK, and those that manage to escape into China, and let the situation continue. Disgraceful.

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