Managing Tensions On The Korean Peninsula

Our guest bloggers are Winny Chen, a Policy Analyst and Manager of China Studies, and Anne Paisley, an intern with the National Security and International Policy Team at the Center for American Progress.

China-North.KoreaEarlier this week, the United States announced additional sanctions aimed at cutting off funding to North Korea’s nuclear program and its affluent ruling class. The effectiveness of the sanctions will depend significantly on cooperation from China, which supports North Korea’s struggling economy and denies the international investigation that blamed North Korea for the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan last March. China, South Korea and the United States all support regional stability, but differences on how to respond linger, as another act of aggression from Pyongyang potentially looms over the region. The United States must make clear that stability is a responsibility of all parties in the region, and it should continue to push hard for China’s support of sanctions in order to prevent another provocative move by North Korea.

Pyongyang’s aggressive behavior demanded a strong international response, which unfortunately China blocked using its permanent position on the United Nations Security Council. The U.N.’s watered-down statement in July condemned the sinking of the Cheonan but did not specifically blame North Korea, which Beijing and Pyongyang viewed as a “great diplomatic victory.” In the absence of a robust international response, the United States stepped up its presence in the region last month by conducting joint military exercises with South Korea and reestablishing ties with Indonesia. North Korea vowed a “physical response” to the joint military exercises in the Sea of Japan, but by the end of the drills on June 28, North Korea had not followed through on its threats and even signaled that it may be interested in returning to six-party talks on its nuclear program, though doubts remain about Pyongyang’s true commitment to talks.

While Washington and Beijing both want regional stability, the two countries disagree on how best to achieve it in the aftermath of the Cheonan sinking. The Obama Administration has adopted a three-part strategy for dealing with North Korea — engaging the U.N., strengthening our alliance with South Korea and targeting North Korean leadership responsible for aggressive behavior and nuclear proliferation through sanctions. As part of that plan, Washington imposed economic sanctions on North Korea to block money that could be used for missiles and nuclear bombs and to keep money from Pyongyang’s wealthy ruling class.

China, on the other hand, wishes to preserve North Korea as a buffer state between itself and South Korean and U.S. troops stationed along the North and South Korean border, so it remains reticent on taking measures against its ally. Beijing also fears that sanctions could cause Pyongyang to collapse and a failed North Korean regime would send thousands of refugees into Northern China. China ultimately did not support international sanctions against the North in order protect its own borders and security concerns and prevent a potential humanitarian crisis on the peninsula.

This poses a significant challenge, as China’s cooperation is vital for the sanctions to be effective in North Korea. China’s refusal to support strong U.N. actions against North Korea or to take any meaningful actions against its rogue neighbor is a step back from the responsible positions China had taken in the last year, such as passing and enforcing sanctions on North Korea and allegedly denying Kim Jong-Il’s request for aid after North Korea shot ballistic missiles over South Korea in 2009. Some analysts surmise the North is planning more missile tests and a strong response is needed now to deter more provocative acts from the peninsula and to prevent an escalation. The U.S.–South Korea joint military exercises are a good start, but more is needed on the Chinese side.

Convincing China to pressure Kim Jong Il’s government is a challenging task for the Obama administration, especially as U.S. involvement in the South China Sea and Korean Peninsula continue to irritate U.S.-China relations. China holds strategic and diplomatic clout over the struggling country but does not see North Korean de-nuclearization as essential to global or even regional stability, as the United States does. Nonetheless, the United States must continue to its diplomatic and military presence in the region to press Beijing to return to a responsible path regarding North Korea. The United States must make clear that preservation of stability in region is the responsibility of all parties, and that it hinges in large part on China’s willingness to support sanctions.

The Obama Administration has not given up hope of achieving regional stability through the resumption of the Six-Party Talks. Secretary Clinton has stated that if North Korea could commit to de-nuclearization, the “door remains open for North Korea.” For the talks to resume, the North Korean government would have to halt its provocative behavior, agree to comply with international law and end belligerence towards its neighbors. China has argued that the issue must be solved through “peaceful measures and direct talks” between North and South Korea, yet it prevaricates on a response. And that benefits no one in the long-run.