Establishment of Peace Regime in the Korean Peninsula: Perception and Stance of China
[Sejong Policy Studies 2019-04]
Dr. Chung Jae-hung
The Sejong Institute
Since last year, the signs of latent conflict between South Korea and China are surfacing around the issues of the end-of-war declaration and the peace regime (either three-party, ROK-DPRK-US, or four-party, ROK-DPRK-US-China), which are connected to establishment of peace regime in the Korean Peninsula. As some critics in the United States are suspicious that North Korea is being passive in the denuclearization talks with the US due to China’s influence, China’s stance and perception on denuclearization and peace regime in the peninsula become a matter of the greatest importance. In particular, since China is unfavorable toward the maintenance of the United Nations Command (UNC) and the United States Forces Korea (USFK) in Korea after the establishment of peace regime, we have to identify not only China’s perception of the peace regime but also their exact intention regarding the dissolution of UNC and the status of USFK in the process. The conflict over THAAD since 2016 created a substantial obstacle in the strategic communication between South Korea and China; the advancement in inter-Korean and US-DPRK dialogues since 2018 was done without much substantive communication with China. Therefore, in this crucial moment when the specific agenda, timing, and issues in dispute regarding the peace regime are being discussed, more proactive communication and discussion between South Korea and China are urgently needed.
Until recently, China officially supported the establishment of the peace regime in the Korean Peninsula. But after last year’s Panmunjom Declaration, they expressed their discontentment and clear opposition to the possibility of a three-party (ROK-DPRK-US) end-of-war declaration. China claims that, as a core interested party of the Korean Peninsula problem and one of the signatories of the Armistice Agreement, they have a right to participate in the end-of-war declaration and will play every role they are invested with. Highlighting North Korea’s display of will for denuclearization, cessation of nuclear weapon and missile test launch, and shutdown of nuclear test facilities in Dongchang-ri and Punggye-ri, China emphasizes denuclearization through dialogue and negotiation, and argues that the U.S. should respond to this and gradually build trust with North Korea by gradually alleviating the sanction on them. That is, as a solution to North Korean nuclear problem after the summits, China rejects a zero-sum (零和博弈) method, which does not consider the other party’s security at all, and instead emphasizes a China-style collective security(共同安全), which can relieve North Korea’s security concerns as well.
China understands that the structural and fundamental origin of the North Korean nuclear problem is the hostility between the U.S. and North Korea, and that the problem cannot be solved completely without the end-of-war declaration and the peace regime in the Korean Peninsula. In particular, now that Kim Jong Un has expressed a clear will for denuclearization at the China-DPRK Summit in order to develop economy and improve the people’s lives, China feels it is no longer justified to participate in the international sanction led unilaterally by the U.S. Since a zero-sum (零和博弈), win-or-lose kind of attempt to solve the North Korea problem does not consider the regime security for North Korea at all and is highly likely to fail, China argues, all neighboring countries must search for a balanced (reasonable) response and a phased solution.
On the other hand, since Xi Jinping’s new (2nd round) party leadership came in, Korea experts in China are highly concerned over the possibilities of hypothetical situations such as: North Korea becomes pro-American; the three parties excluding China decides the end-of-war declaration and the peace regime agenda; or, North Korea allows to station the U.S. troops and high-tech strategic assets in their territory. In particular, as the competition for hegemony between the U.S. and China is accelerating since the Trump administration—such as its Indo-Pacific strategy, heightening tensions in the Taiwan and the South China Sea issues, and trade and exchange rate wars—those experts are suspicious that the improvement in the US-DPRK relations may couple with the U.S.‘s containment strategy, bringing about direct impacts on China.
Xi Jinping and his new party leadership, formed at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, are firm that they cannot accept exacerbation of situations in the peninsula under the regional uncertainties caused by the hegemonic competition between the U.S. and China. China has already made agreement with North Korea, upon the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relationship between them, to strengthen the strategic communication and economic cooperation. Among Xi Jinping and his leadership, aiming to achieve the “China dream” by 2050, the opinion that they cannot allow the North Korean nuclear problem enlarging the American influence in the region is gaining power. If the US-ROK alliance turns into a regional alliance to contain China even after the North Korea nuclear problem is resolved and the peace agreement is signed, it will be a challenge not just within the Korean Peninsula but also for the Korea-China relationship, because at the 19th National Congress, China has strengthened the one-man rule under Xi Jinping and declared its strategic vision: that by 2049, China will exit from the U.S.-centered world order and found a new China-centered regional order. Therefore, it is likely that China will link its own mid- and long-term foreign policy and the US-China dynamics in order to solve the North Korean nuclear problem and expand its influence on the Korean Peninsula through power from its location.
Hence, China wishes to resume the four-party or six-party talks through a close cooperation with South Korea, in order to set the conditions for follow-up negotiations and proceed them smoothly. It is necessary because there is a series of complicated and difficult problems to completely solve the North Korean nuclear issue: alleviating North Korea’s security anxiety, lifting sanction on North Korea, executing extensive economic aid, and establishing the peace regime in the peninsula. After all, South Korea must actively drive for multilateral cooperation such as four-party (ROK-DPRK-US-China) or six-party (ROK-DPRK-US-China-Japan-Russia) talks, in order for substantive collaboration with China including constructing the peace regime in the peninsula. In particular, we need to seriously consider the “double-freeze (雙中斷; simultaneous cease of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests and the US-South Korea joint military exercises)” and “double wheels (雙軌竝行; parallel developments in US-North Korea peace treaty and denuclearization)” solutions which China has been proposing. It is a crucial moment for bold policy changes to make a ground-breaking turning point in the inter-Korean and the US-North Korea relations.
※ Translator’s note: This is a summarized unofficial translation of the original paper which was written in Korean. All references should be made to the original paper.
※ This article is written based on the author’s personal opinions and does not reflect the views of the Sejong Institute.