How North Korea is Bringing the U.S. and China Closer

Kim Jong Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits Baekdu Mountain Architecture Research Institute in this undated picture provided by KCNA in Pyongyang on March 11. KCNA/via Reuters

It's Kim again. Nuclear tests, missile launches, the apparent assassination of potential rivals, threats to wipe out the U.S. and South Korea—North Korea seems like a nightmare right out of the Cold War. But it's very much reality. North Korea has now raised tensions in East Asia to their highest level since Pyongyang's first-ever nuclear test in 2006, which is highly to cause shifts in traditional global power roles.

Kim's actions, paradoxically, are likely to lead to greater cooperation between China, the U.S., South Korea and other countries in the region. These countries do not see eye to eye all the time, but if there is something they can agree on, it is their shared dislike for a nuclear and provocative North Korea.

Talks and consultations

In 2002, Pyongyang admitted that it was developing a nuclear program. The result was the launch of the Six-Party Talks, a process bringing together the U.S., China, both Koreas, Japan and Russia to discuss North Korea's denuclearization. The 2006 nuclear test was followed by a revival of these talks and an implementation agreement, which was the closest President George W. Bush's government got to halting Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

Barack Obama established a policy of "strategic patience" based on maintaining sanctions on North Korea while waiting for a change in behavior from Pyongyang, but it did not work—a view shared by Republicans and many Democrats. Historically, engagement has been the only way to rein in North Korea's behavior. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush learnt that lesson; now Donald Trump should.

The main reason "strategic patience" failed is that Pyongyang is paranoid about isolation. With talks and consultations, North Korea can at least see itself as part of the international community. This strengthens the hand of those North Koreans who want to engage with the U.S. and South Korea. Trump needs to recognize that multilateral talks are the way to go with the Kim regime.

The Six-Party Talks also served to sit Beijing and Washington on the same table on a regular basis and to discuss a key concern for both of them. They paved the way for the annual bilateral strategic and economic dialogues launched by the Bush administration, merged and continued during the Obama years. There is no indication yet that Trump wants to halt this dialogue—if anything, recent North Korean provocations make it even more important.

A window of opportunity for China

China is a huge cheerleader of the Six-Party Talks and the bilateral dialogue with the U.S. South Korea and the Bush administration praised Beijing for its hosting of the talks. Meanwhile, the dialogue has served to smooth relations with Washington. Even though the Chinese government is unlikely to receive the support of its neighbors—Japan, Vietnam and other states in Southeast Asia—as a global peacekeeper, Xi Jinping certainly wants to be more central to East Asian security. China wants a stable region to continue to pursue economic growth. Talks and dialogues will help with this.

Encouraged by U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Asia Pacific trade agreement signed by the Obama administration, China now sees a window of opportunity to take the lead in East Asia's economic and diplomatic affairs, and North Korea's nuclear problem is the window of opportunity for Xi Jinping.

The assassination of Kim Jong Nam has enraged Beijing. Let's not forget, he was based in Macau under the implicit protection of China. Many Chinese are also worried about ongoing missile tests, as well as Pyongyang's progress towards placing a nuclear warhead in an intercontinental ballistic missile. Doing so would allow the Kim regime to threaten to strike the U.S. Washington, logically, would react by beefing up its defenses against a possible attack. Beijing wants to stop this at all costs. Its adamant opposition to the deployment of the missile defence system THAAD in South Korea is living proof. The Xi government has powerful reasons to try to ease tensions in the Korean Peninsula.

More provocative action

Cooperation between China, the U.S. and East Asian powers on the North Korean nuclear issue is positive. The benefits go beyond reining in Pyongyang. Kim Jong Il brought Washington and Beijing closer to each other during the Bush years and his son, Kim Jong Un, seems bent on doing the same today.

We can expect more provocative action from North Korea in the coming weeks. China curbing imports of coal from its North Korea has probably increased Pyongyang's fears of isolation. Talks involving Washington and Beijing would ease them. But Trump is unlikely to commit to them so soon after coming to power. For the time being, we should prepare ourselves for more shocks coming out of Pyongyang.

Ramon Pacheco Pardo is senior lecturer (associate professor) in international relations at King's College London and co-director of the London Asia Pacific Centre for Social Science.