Anne Wu is a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Jason Qian is a fellow at the Harvard Negotiation Project.
THE RULE of the game in pursuing a non-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has been fundamentally changed by Pyongyang’s claimed nuclear test. The adopted UN resolutions on sanctions against North Korea early this week further intensified the game of chicken that Washington and Pyongyang seem to be playing. China, as a major stakeholder in the Korean Peninsula denuclearization process, should not follow this dangerous trend, but instead initiate new rules to change the dynamics of the game away from the direction of a fatal nuclear collision.
In past years, Beijing’s facilitation of the six-party denuclearization talks has been greatly undermined by Kim’s habit of capriciously changing the rules of the game and Washington’s rigid policy toward Pyongyang. It is time for China to step out of its confining role as an impartial and cautious mediator, and proactively present a roadmap to lead the non-nuclearization process. To do so, China should learn from the experience and the assertiveness of the US government in bringing about the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel at Camp David in 1978 — shifting focus from incompatible positions between the two adversaries to their underlying common interest and complementing different interests with creative options.
In previous talks, China stayed basically outside the substantive negotiations and served more as a facilitator and host. Its effort to build bridges and exert soft influence over the parties was helpful in deescalating the tension, but could not do much to narrow the gap of their deeply anchored positions, let alone to build self-sustaining momentum. Therefore, though Beijing has been deeply devoted to the non-nuclearization process, its diplomacy is still widely perceived as a failure, as evidenced by Pyongyang’s nuclear test.
To truly broker a non-nuclearization agreement and safeguard its own interest, China needs a shift in its facilitator’s mentality and its non-intervention diplomatic approach. While stability is still China’s highest priority, North Korea has become one prime source of instability in China’s Northeastern border. In that sense, rebottling Pyongyang’s nuclear genie is not simply an issue between the two adversaries: North Korea and the United States. Beijing more than ever needs to treat this problem as its own and act swiftly and decisively to leverage both Pyongyang and Washington before the tension explodes by force and nuclear domino, or implodes by a regime collapse in the north.
The weakest point North Korea sees in China is Beijing’s inability to intervene decisively for fear of burdening itself with a hostile neighbor with strategic, social, and economic implications. If China could shake off its self-imposed constraint in dealing with Pyongyang’s brinkmanship, play down Pyongyang’s potential reactions, and instead put its own interest as the priority — a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and non-proliferation of Northeast Asia — then China will master the decisiveness to discipline Pyongyang.
China also needs to discipline Washington, a task of equal if not more urgency. Beijing’s inability to influence Washington to engage Pyongyang is another weak point that the north takes advantage of. China’s containment of Pyongyang will not be effective without the cooperation of Washington, and China needs to further leverage its economic and political ties with the United States in shaping a more constructive North Korean policy. If the US administration can produce more incentives for Pyongyang’s potential change of course instead of simply crafting punitive measures; if Washington can initiate substantive engagement measures such as replacing the armistice treaty with a peace treaty, and can proceed to the normalization of relations with Pyongyang; if Washington can be flexible in its denuclearization proposal and in the sequences of providing reciprocal measures, the denuclearization battle on the Korean Peninsula would become more winnable.
That mentality could pave the way for China to act as a genuine negotiator in brokering an agreement. Without focusing on behaving delicately as a mediator, China can put more energy into devising a negotiating roadmap, and exert influence and pressure with a freer hand whenever necessary. Without waiting for Washington and Pyongyang to talk past each other and veto any options, Beijing can initiate a substantive negotiation package. Prior to the resumption of six-party talks, let alone the bilateral negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington, Beijing can shuttle between them to work bit by bit on the substance, just like what Jimmy Carter did between Egypt and Israel. China will not take the side of either Washington or Pyongyang, and China will not exclude any provisions in the package before their interests are fully explored.
The chance to negotiate away Pyongyang’s nukes remains only if China can make a strategic choice to move beyond its mediator role and act as a pro-active negotiator, complemented by a strategic choice on Washington’s part to pursue genuine engagement and one-to-one substantive talks with Pyongyang. Without seizing the chance of negotiating with North Korea, the nations favoring a global non-proliferation regime will only suffer another heavy blow by stimulating a domino effect.