What Does China Want? Part I: Fu Ying on the North Korean Nuclear Issue



With its weekend missile test, North Korea managed both to probe the incoming Moon Jae-in administration—despite its interest in engagement—and dis Xi Jinping, who was hosting his Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. (North Korea planned to send a delegation, creating a diplomatic dust-up with the US over the invite). Rather than speculating once again on the next moves, it is worthwhile to stand back and look at China’s evolving stance on the issue. We do so in two parts, starting today with a brief from Fu Ying for Brookings. Tomorrow, we pick up the current Chinese proposal for talks and the rapid deterioration in China-North Korea relations over the last week.

Fu Ying is chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress and had direct engagement in the Six Party Talks from their inception; she knows whereof she speaks. Her account is both personal and pointed, outlining in some detail China’s view of peninsular issues and containing some historical insights on the Six Party Talks that were news to me. The brief implicitly but strongly makes a point that this blog has made repeatedly: that China continues to view US motives with deep suspicion and any cooperation we get is going to be highly contingent on the US adjusting its own thinking.

Fu Ying’s account is a veritable “pox on both their houses.” But the US gets more than a fair share of the blame for what has gone wrong. She goes back to decisions to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in the South in the late 1950s, working through what she sees as the failed pressure tactics of the early 1990s which have only confirmed North Korea’s decision to pursue a nuclear option. She indicts the US under both the Agreed Framework and Six Party Talks agreements of 2007 for not keeping its commitments, with the first Bush administration coming in for particularly heavy fire. One interesting detail: the North Koreans were particularly piqued in 2004 when it was discovered that South Korea had extracted small amounts of plutonium and enriched uranium and got little more than a slap on the wrist from the IAEA.  The financial sanctions associated with BDA come in for criticism as derailing the progress made under the September 2005 Joint Statement. But Fu Ying argues that the US bears a significant amount of blame for the breakdown of 2008 as well, with Rice’s insistence on reaching agreement on verification clouding the waters, despite the manifest weakness of the North Korean declaration.

Fu Ying admits that the problems of the early Obama administration were largely of North Korea’s making. But she reiterates the official account of the Cheonan: that it was the sanctions undertaken by the Lee Myung-bak administration rather than the sinking of the vessel itself that reversed the thaw of late 2009 and early 2010. This maddening even-handedness continues in her description of the breakdown of the Leap Year Deal in 2012, which she suggests could have been due to US failure to make clear the obvious: that the agreement was not likely to survive an attempted satellite launch, whatever legal rationale North Korea trotted out. In her recitation of events in the second Obama term, the holding of long-standing exercises with the ROK come up repeatedly as a deal breaker and needless to say THAAD is a target.

But it is perhaps her simple description of “strategic patience” that conveys the message:

“The U.S. adopted a policy of “strategic patience,” the essence of which was that no matter how North Korea conducted itself, the U.S. did not give any serious consideration to Pyongyang’s security concerns. If North Korea was willing to negotiate, the U.S. would talk but with no intention to make any progress. If North Korea chose confrontation, the U.S. would intensify sanctions. The ultimate purpose was to see the North Korean regime collapse under constant pressure.”

To be sure, there are American critics of the Obama administration who would side with such a formulation. But it is probably a minority. Whatever one thinks of strategic patience, there was a stated willingness to negotiate on the basis of the 2005 Joint Statement and few in the administration were under any illusion that the regime was on its last legs. Particularly after the failure of the Leap Year Deal, the cost-benefit calculation was simply pessimistic: why invest effort in a losing proposition when it would only draw flak from those favoring a still stronger reaction, the forces who are now in charge?  

Fu Ying’s analysis of the current conjuncture is also striking:

“[T]he United States is unwilling to make any compromise and refuses to make a deal with North Korea, and this has become a politically correct view, especially in the military and strategic circles. In the meantime, the U.S. is also making use of the tension to invest heavily in strategic deployment and military activities in Northeast Asia and, therefore, cannot focus itself on resolving the nuclear issue.”

My purpose here is not to quarrel with this or that point raised by Madame Fu Ying, and in fact I endorse her call for negotiations. In contrast to Fu Ying’s account, though, it appeared—at least prior to the weekend missile test—that the Trump administration was bending over backwards to signal a willingness to negotiate, as we have documented in some detail (here, here, and here). But it is hard to negotiate with an empty chair. 

But the significance of Fu Ying’s essay is not in any given detail, and I did not read it to make debating points. Rather, the essay is important because it underlines the deep Chinese view of the state of play; that the United States bears significant responsibility for how we move forward, and therefore for how much cooperation we are likely to get from Beijing. 

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