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Sejong Commentary

Is China a “Party” to the Korean Peninsula Issue?
2018.05.04  Friday
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Is China a “Party” to the Korean Peninsula Issue?


No. 2018-26 (May 4, 2018)

Lee Seong-hyon (Research Fellow, the Sejong Institute)


South Korea has a crucial task ahead on how to persuade and continue to gain support from China, which strives to have its voice and influence recognized over the North Korean nuclear issue. U.S. President Donald Trump once said, “North Korea is China’s problem to fix”indicating the perception that China has influence over North Korea shared by the international community. However, Beijing shunned away from being viewed in this light and pointed, instead, to the U.S. as a responsible “party” to deal with the North Korean issue. However, when China sensed that it is being “overlooked” in the current North Korean talks with Seoul and Washington, respectively, it has begun to itself as a legitimate “party” to the matter.

In the international arena, the North Korean nuclear issue has been widely discussed as ‘China’s responsibility’ for the last decade or so, and even the Chinese media pointed out the negative influence of the North Korean nuclear program, not only on regional security but also on eruption of earthquakes and leakage of radioactive materials, among others. Nonetheless, the Chinese government has approached the issue from the perspective of national interests as it perceives. It denies any ‘responsibility’ to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue first, but does not wish to lose ‘its voice’ on the issue at the international scene.

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said, “The core of the issue is the conflict between the DPRK and the US. … The US should shoulder its due responsibilities” on September 12, 2016, passing the buck to the U.S. The ministry made similar remarks on September 19, 2017, January 3, 2018, and January 26, 2018.

In other words, China annually has proclaimed outward that ‘China should not be held responsible for the North Korean nuclear issue, hence the international community should not associate China with the North Korean nuclear issue.’ It is interesting that this China has changed its words hastily as it seemed to face ‘passing (neglect)’ in the midst of rapidly changing environment on the Korean Peninsula.

On April 19, 2018, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson expressed, “[A]s a party concerned to the Peninsula issue, China is willing to play a positive role to this end.”

It should be noted that China defined itself as ‘a party concerned to the Peninsula issue.’ In positioning itself on the Korean Peninsula issue, China used to express itself as a country playing a ‘constructive (jiànshèxìng)’ or ‘unique (dútè)’ role until recently, it has now entitled itself as a ‘party concerned’ to the Peninsula issue.

Notably looking through the archives of the Chinese foreign ministry, China has never categorized itself as a ‘party concerned (dāngshìfāng)’ to the Peninsula issue when listing North Korea, the U.S., and South Korea as the parties concerned. And the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson added, “we hope that under the current circumstance, the directly concerned parties will be brave to take up their own responsibility, play their due role, truly think about their people and regional peace and stability, judge reasonably and make the right choices.” (on August 30, 2017)

China has categorically declined international perceptions that recognize China as a ‘party concerned’ to the Korean peninsula issue until now. As it denied being a party concerned, which should logically shoulder the responsibility to the problem, it has employed the logic that the U.S. should assume responsibility for the North Korean peninsula issue as a party concerned. Instead, China designated itself as a mediator in the North Korean nuclear issue. A typical example is holding the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue. Also, China emphasized the parties concerned, namely North Korea and the U.S., should accept its proposition of mediation for the North Korean nuclear issuethe ‘dual-track approach’ and the ‘suspension-for-suspension’ concept.

In such situation, China, despite losing some face with this ‘logical contradiction,’ proclaimed itself as ‘a party concerned to the peninsula issue.’ South Korea should predict how this will affect the state of affairs around the inter-Korean summit and DPRK-U.S. summit.

The sudden summit between Chairman Kim Jong-un and President Xi Jinping late March provides some hints. President Xi clearly conveyed the message that no one can decide the peninsula issue without consulting China by hosting Chairman Kim’s first summit overseas in China.

Being aware of the fact that Presidents Moon and Trump will meet Chairman Kim in late April and late May respectively, China held the summit as if it ‘cut the line.’ China views that it has once again grasped the authority to lead and intervene in the Korean Peninsula issue through the normalization of relations with North Korea.

As it reveals, China paced its steps to secure its ‘influence on the Korean Peninsula’ as a response to the growing possibility of the North Korean nuclear issue being altered by the lead of Seoul and Washington. For the first time in 12 years, China’s state councilor for foreign affairs visits Pyongyang this week. From the viewpoint of China’s geopolitical strategy on the Korean Peninsula, President Trump’s decision to hold summit talks with his North Korean counterpart incited China’s apprehension of ‘being passed over.’ This signaled that the U.S. could engage in a direct transaction with North Korea, with China no longer necessary in tackling the North Korean nuclear issue.

China, via several channels, directly and indirectly expressed that it will not tolerate the North Korean nuclear issue dancing to the South Korean and American tune through the inter-Korean summit and the DPRK-U.S. summit, with China excluded. The degradation of ‘China’s role’ in Korean Peninsula geopolitics will appear unfavorable to China. If so, the situation will narrow down to the dynamics between North Korea and the U.S.

Chinese scholars claim that Beijing will not sit back when South Korea and the U.S. go their way on the North Korean nuclear issue, neglecting China. Perhaps to ascertain this point, Chinese military jets invaded South Korea’s air defense identification zone (KADIZ). For four long hours, Chinese jets hovered close to South Korean airspace in the form of a ‘siege.’ Such saber-rattling activity took place the day after the inter-Korean summit on April 27 which marked a new milestone for the peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Beijing wants Seoul and Washington to respect their traditional sphere of influence on North Korea and to recognize China as a key member on making decisions related to North Korea, such as the declaration to end the Korean War and also to serve as a party to the peace treaty. Should China sense that it is neglected or alienated, China will attempt to boast itself as a ‘decision-maker’ in the North Korea issue as seen in the ‘ambush summit’ between Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping. Chinese pundits asserted that China will ‘disrupt (dǎluàn)’ the process if South Korea and the U.S. endeavour to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue without China on board. It appears to be high time for Seoul to take pre-emptive policy considerations on how to persuade Beijing and draw its steadfast support.