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Nothing the United States or China does seems to work with North Korea. Experts discuss how to reassess and reboot.

On February 7, North Korea launched a long-range rocket, which many see as a test of its capability to launch a missile attack against the US, defying both American and Chinese pressure not to do so. Some Republican US-presidential candidates argued that Washington should press China harder to restrain Pyongyang. If the current mix of negotiations and sanctions are failing to prevent North Korea from advancing its nuclear programme, do Beijing and Washington need a new approach? What should each country do now, and what can they do together?

This what The ChinaFile Editors say:


John Delury: In the 1950s, the US became obsessed with a burning question of extraordinary hubris: Who Lost China? No less nefarious a force in American political life than senator Joseph McCarthy used this question as a sledgehammer to go off on his dark Quixotic quest for Communist agents lurking behind the windmills of Foggy Bottom. The careers of some of the Greatest Generation’s finest China hands were destroyed, and China studies and China policy suffered for decades as a result.

The arrogance of that original question, implying as it did that it was one of “us” Americans who “lost” a country of hundreds of millions, opened the gates to the pathology of McCarthyism, predicated on the paranoid assumption that there must have been traitors in Washington who won China for Mao Zedong.

Fortunately, the US learned the lesson of McCarthyism (although at moments in the GOP primary one has had to wonder if the lesson is sticking). But the original hubris embedded the idea that the world is ours to win or lose has been harder to overcome. The American foreign policy establishment’s worldview is at some level anchored in an idealist, and hubristic, notion that the entire world is converging on our form of government, our political values, and our way of life. And US foreign policy often comes down to questions of when to push, when to nudge, and when to sit back and wait for the Great Convergence to take place before our eyes.

No place has defied America’s Whiggish view of history quite like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Almost alone, North Korea (or the DPRK) spits in the eye of teleology, defying the verities of liberalism, capitalism, globalization. It is one of the poorest and most isolated countries in the world, yet it has unlocked the secrets of the world’s most guarded technology — nuclear weaponry, launches satellites into orbit, and, according to our own intelligence czar, carried out the most successful hack in cyberhistory. It is the only ally of East Asia’s new great power, yet it treats Beijing with disdain. Even as it keeps China at bay, it jeers at American power in the Pacific, egging on the pivot almost as if missile defence and nuclear threats are precisely what it wants.

What is wrong here? Why is history stuck in gear? The DPRK was supposed to fall with its patron, the Soviet Union, yet it endured. The DPRK’s ruling Kim regime was supposed to collapse with the death of former leader Kim Jong-Il, yet it flourishes under his son Kim Jong-Un. When will Pyongyang fold, and come knocking on the doors of the international community, tail between its legs, begging to be let in on any terms? When will this aberration, a Communist monarchy, wither away like it was supposed to? When will this problem go away?

This is our new ‘Who-Lost-China’ debate. Call it the ‘Who-Nuclearised-North Korea’ debate. Was it former US president Bill Clinton’s fault for naively negotiating the Agreed Framework directly with Pyongyang, South Korea’s liberal presidents for flooding North Korea with cash during the “Sunshine Policy” decade, and former Chinese president Hu Jintao and current President Xi Jinping for refusing to pull the plug on Pyongyang today? So the sanctions hawks will say.

Or was it former US president George W. Bush’s mistake for trashing Clinton’s efforts and undermining Seoul’s engagement, followed by conservative South Korean president Lee Myung-bak’s confrontational tactics, and completed by the apathetic, inert approach of US President Barack Obama known as “strategic patience”? That’s what engagement doves (like me, sometimes) will say.

Deep down, most sanctions hawks and engagement doves probably have doubts that their method will succeed. The only thing they are certain about is that the other way won’t work. Maybe we are both right.

China policy got stuck in this kind of purgatory for the two decades after the Korean War; there’s a reason you’ve never heard of a great book on JFK and LBJ’s approach to China. Our ‘Who-Lost-China’ debate over the North Korean nuclear issue has dragged on long enough. It’s time now for the ‘Nixon-in-China’ moment. History is not a monorail. It’s a desert. We need to find an oasis.

John Delury is an associate professor of East Asian Studies at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies and Underwood International College in Seoul, South Korea. Delury is currently a senior fellow of Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations, where with Center director Orville Schell he recently co-authored Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-first Century (Random House, 2013).


Seong-Hyon Lee: Delury appears to echo a common American worldview that looks at the North Korean issue under the canopy of America’s China policy. Under this frame, Washington in fact yields to the notion that North Korea belongs to the Chinese sphere of influence. Thus, when North Korea engineers trouble, Americans blame it on China. It’s like when a dog bites a man, the man blames it on the dog’s owner, not the dog.

This mentality helps us to understand why the US came up with the “China card” in dealing with North Korea. Washington “outsourced” the task of dealing with North Korea to China, by inviting the latter to host the Six Party Talks, a multilateral platform aimed at North Korea’s denuclearisation. With that, the US settled down in the back seat, while China was elbowed into the driver’s seat. Every time the car veered off course, the driver got scolded.

The widespread “North Korea is China’s problem to fix” narrative is a brilliant piece of US public diplomacy that warrants serious soul-searching, because relying on the tactic of buck-passing goes against the very spirit of what America stands for.

America’s North Korea policy, dubbed “strategic patience”, is a convenient recipe for ignoring North Korea, while Washington points fingers at China. Washington has been avoiding negotiations with Pyongyang, delegating the task to Beijing. China sees it as unfair. It’s in fact up to America, not China, to show leadership.

Doing so serves American national interest.-Globally speaking, America’s national interest has two pillars; one is to defend its current superpower status, the other is to safeguard its credibility. During his State of the Union address, Obama proclaimed: “When it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead. They call us.” Obama was talking about American credibility. When people trust America and its leadership, America can continue its leading superpower status by sustaining the current global governance system, which it established and thus suits American interests. The world is now watching how America deals with the North Korean challenge. America’s credibility and leadership is at stake.

Washington’s current policy of outsourcing the challenge to China is also un-Biblical. Sure, dealing with a regime like North Korea is a dirty business, requiring patience and long-term commitment. It could be domestically unpopular too. It’s not everyone’s challenge. It takes a special country. It takes special leadership. And that’s America. In the New Testament’s Galatians 6:9, it says: “Let us not become weary in doing good.” After two decades of frustrating, fruitless negotiations, Washington felt disgusted with the Pyongyang regime and humiliated at the very idea of sitting across the negotiating table with North Koreans. But it cannot outsource the challenge to a country like China. America should lead the way. America should go back to look at the North Korean conundrum by thinking more deeply about its long-term national interest and by going back to the teachings of the Bible.

Seong-Hyon Lee, Ph.D., lived in Beijing for 11 years. He is a graduate of Grinnell College, Harvard University, and Tsinghua University. Prior to joining the Sejong Institute, he worked as an assistant professor at Kyushu University in Japan. His research interests include press and foreign policy, public diplomacy, soft power and international relations of East Asia. Currently, he is also senior research fellow at the Center for Korean Peninsula Studies (nonresident), Peking University.


Zhu Feng: Delury is spot on to reveal the policy inconsistency of the US in the handling of North Korea over the past decades. It has varied remarkably from the Clinton administration to the Obama administration, switching course explicitly between “engagement doves” and “sanction hawks”. Thus Delury calls for a “Nixon-in-China moment” — a historic diplomatic episode echoing the 1972 visit that successfully reopened the door for US-China cooperation and dramatically left behind decades of animosity and hostility between the two powers.

Delury’s call is worth a try as no one can deny the reality that the lingering standoff of denuclearisation on the Korea Peninsula actually urges Pyongyang to scale up its nuclear and missile programmes to desperately uphold its regime’s survival. The apathetic and inert “strategic patience” approach of the Obama Administration has failed — North Korea exploded its fourth nuclear test on January 6, 2016, and launched its sixth long-range missile test on February 8. The “engagement doves” seem unable to alter North Korean behaviours and unlikely to dissolve Kim Jong-Un’s motive to pursue nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang’s imperviousness to diplomatic pressures and economic sanctions stems largely from its regime type — a vicious combination of personality cult, totalitarianism, and a “military first” domestic power structure. Kim Jong-Un cares little about the suffering of his people, and instead attempts, as usual, to maintain his grip on power through nuclear desperation. There is little hope that North Korea will abandon its nuclear capability as long as the regime type remains unchanged. In addition, Kim Jong-Un asks for international recognition of North Korea as a “nuclear status power,” a status few other powers in the world are willing to concede. “Engagement doves” are confident their path will alter North Korea’s regime type. Perhaps. But how patient can we be while-Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons pose a serious threat to the region?

Furthermore, a calling for “Nixon-in-China” moment seems less desirable and applicable given domestic and security imperatives in the US. A leading driver behind the call for a “Nixon-in-China” moment around North Korea is the modern day equivalent of Nixon’s security policy based on balancing the Soviet Union. Nixon acutely realised the value of the “China card” vis-a-vis Moscow early in the 1970s, while Mao also saw that rapprochement with Washington could greatly beef up his anti-Soviet policy. Might the presidents of America and China now acknowledge a common enemy and seek together to turn North Korea with a “smiling offence” against Kim Jong-Un?

A new approach is absolutely needed between China and the US when confronting Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile paranoids. An essential option is to conduct tougher sanctions to wither away North Korea’s potential to develop nuclear weapons in internationally coordinated and assured ways. Washington should stop scapegoating China for its failed North Korea policy and respect China’s wide-ranging security concerns in the Asia-Pacific. For the moment, suspending talks between Washington and Seoul about deployment of the THAAD-missile defence system will be helpful. Beijing, equally stuck in North Korean purgatory for two decades, needs to end its indecision and think about completely cutting-off the supply of oil it sends to Pyongyang, following the mandate of a new United Nations Security Council resolution.

When China and the US decide together to adopt such a big stick, the international community should simultaneously take tougher sanctions more seriously. Washington needs to lower the threshold of diplomatic engagement and even promise security guarantees to the Pyongyang regime as North Korea simply agrees to suspend the development of the nation’s nuclear capability. Smothering North Korea for its nuclear capability seems the only workable alternative. China and the US should not line up to meet North Korea’s exorbitant demands and instead should jointly make clear that keeping nuclear weapons would be deadly costly.

— Foreign Policy/New York Times News Service