We Won't Achieve Peace With North Korea Without China's Help | Opinion

With the world's focus on Korean presidents Kim Jong Un, Moon Jae-in and the suddenly threatened meeting between Mr. Kim and Donald Trump, China seems marginalized. It isn't and shouldn't be. Mr. Kim's second meeting with China's President Xi Jinping made that clear.

The United States is technically at war with China as well as North Korea. Peace requires Beijing's signature and the goodwill of other regional powers. Mr. Kim's declarations of outrage and threats to scrap the June 12 summit underscore the importance of constructive input from China.

Mr. Trump attempted to reassure Mr. Kim of America's good intentions over the weekend, assuring him that he would remain in power and become "very rich," but then Mr. Trump threatened the North if it pulled out of the meeting. Mr. Kim could easily see that as a new assault on his manhood, and may need Mr. Xi to assure him that no one will think him cowardly for ignoring the threat and attending the meeting.

Beijing has scorned the three party dance toward peace between North Korea, South Korea and the United States. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang dismissed the first of Mr. Kim's two goodwill gestures as nonsense—shuttering the site where his massive bomb was tested. Explosions rendered the test site inoperable, Mr. Li observed, inadvertently giving Washington a reason to doubt Mr. Kim. The second gesture, freeing the three Korean American hostages, cost him nothing.

Coincidentally, China's duplicity in the South China Sea puts it under the microscope. It claimed the artificial islands it created to stretch its boundaries would not be militarized, but CNBC, citing American intelligence, revealed that three of those islands are armed with anti-ship cruise missiles and surface to air missile systems. China responded that peaceful trade will pass undisturbed, but it has been caught cheating.

Verifiability is key, America must insist. All commitments must be validated, including its own.

The impression of independence Mr. Kim is conveying is just that—an impression. North Korea has been serving China since 1950, when Beijing unleashed it on South Korea, hoping to turn the whole peninsula into a communist extension.

Of course China would now support a peace treaty in which South Korea stepped away from American protection. The removal of U.S. troops would weaken Washington's influence. But America's presence serves wider communities as well as South Korea. It can help to liberate Mr. Kim, who is economically bound to China and wants to loosen the ties.

That the Korean situation is not just an arrangement among the Koreas and Washington was clear to President Moon when, seeking support from crucial neighbors, he met with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Mr. Li, whose attendance confirmed that Beijing was not pleased.

China's President Mr. Xi met India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the end of April simply to ease tensions instead of attending Mr. Moon's gathering. Short of removing American troops, Beijing wants North Korea and America un-allied.

At the latest meeting between Mr. Xi and Mr. Kim, Mr. Xi doubtless observed that South Korean and American troops, with America's Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, are unwelcome on China's border.

Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 23, 2018. NAOHIKO HATTA/AFP/Getty Images

Communist China doesn't trust Washington. In 1943, with World War II raging, America, the United Kingdom and Japanese-tormented China, led by Chiang Kai-shek, sought to liberate a unified Korea from Tokyo's enslavement.

Japan surrendered two years later, but Chiang was ousted by The People's Republic four years after that. Newly in power in 1950, Chairman Mao Tse Tung had North Korea, a de-facto province, attack South Korea. The Soviet Union's temporary absence from the UN Security Council, with China still represented by Chiang's Taiwan, allowed Washington to muster a veto-free Security Council resolution authorizing military support for South Korea. That support, largely American, drove North Korea's army to China's border on the Yalu River.

China responded with millions of troops that pushed back American forces, resulting in the 1953 truce negotiated by new U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and still in effect.

North Korea insulates China's border. A unified Korea would remove that protection and could result in northern refugees seeking Chinese asylum. That, and military, economic and ideological considerations leave China opposed to unification.

The Chinese Communist Party, central to Mr. Xi, though he has embraced government-controlled capitalism, would suffer from South Korea's economic and political triumphs, a liberal capitalist success story, on its southern border.

Beijing has been calling instead for resumption of Six Party Talks—China, America, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea—to return the North to The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which it, already a member of the United Nations, abandoned to seek atomic weapons while remaining 90% economically dependent on China.

Pyongyang wants independence from Beijing, and China wants to retain control. That is why it exposed Mr. Kim's missile site sleight of hand.

China thus revealed that it feels endangered. Recognizing that disadvantage, Washington can acknowledge China's importance by seeking its help to get Mr. Kim to the negotiating table. We must convey to both China and North Korea that our first desire is to bring North Korea, until now a rogue state, into the family of nations. With that as our initial aim, we can pursue the tripartite phase of negotiations. We can offer complete economic and political ties to South Korea and America in return for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. The outcome should be an all-encompassing agreement, featuring permanent verifiable commitments from all.

If tripartite negotiations go well, negotiations with China, Japan and Russia must be pursued, settling regional and international issues. Japan left its ideological imperial past in the dustbin of history and both it and the world are better off for this. Moscow, past communist commitment, and Beijing despite it, are both ideologically compromised, with Russia as a capitalist oligarchy and China pursuing state-capitalism. They should be open to change here. North Korea, currently struggling economically like China in the Mao days, can shift, too, if it wishes to stay separate from the South, ending its hermit-nation status by following the Chinese model.

Russian imperial aspirations in Ukraine and Georgia and Chinese dynastic history, evident in the South China Sea, still need to be checked, but America's Cold War containment policy must be updated to reflect changing times. Sensible geopolitical positions, economic rapprochement with Russia in return for its acceptance of present boundaries, and free trade with China in return for its ceasing to steal American intellectual property, will contain their threats and help guide North Korea to a constructive place in the world.

The final comprehensive document must be ratified by America's Congress, enshrining it as an American treaty, free from any individual manipulations.

With nonaggression agreements and the avoidance of party grievances, peace and prosperity in a denuclearized Korean Peninsula can be achieved.

Jonathan Wachtel served as Director of Communications and Spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. As a journalist he covered global conflicts for ABC, Fox and Worldwide Television News. Albert Wachtel, a professor at the Claremont Colleges, has written for many national journals and newspapers. He has four books out and ran for Congress in 1992.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.