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China Playing a Long Game on North Korea

After 17 hours of negotiations at the “peace village” of Panmunjom, North and South Korean representatives agreed to hold further talks at the ministerial level, the highest level of dialogue between the two countries in six years. Reports suggest that these talks will take place in Seoul later this week. Reportedly up for discussion are the resumption of work at a jointly operated industrial park and other humanitarian and economic projects that have lain dormant for years because of DPRK belligerence.

There is some speculation, which seems reasonable to us, that this move is the result of intense pressure from Beijing, which is sick and tired of the continual crisis atmosphere that North Korea has created in Northeast Asia. After Xi Jinping and President Obama discussed North Korea over the weekend, Tom Donilon told reporters that both leaders “agreed that North Korea has to denuclearize, that neither country will accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state, and that we would work together to deepen cooperation and dialogue to achieve denuclearization.”

But for Beijing, more things are in play than just a nuclear-armed Pyongyang. China’s is worried that North Korean aggressiveness justifies the growth of Japanese military spending and tightens commitment to the US alliance in both Seoul and Tokyo. Tokyo is going to be hard to separate from Washington right now, but drawing Seoul toward Beijing is a more tempting diplomatic target that would have a significant impact on the regional balance of power.

For China to become the godfather of reconciliation between the Koreas—a process that Beijing and Seoul both think about as a very long term and gradual one—would be a remarkable and welcome accomplishment in Beijing. It would reduce tensions in the region, help shore up the North, and build a much more solid relationship with the South.

Some analysts in the US will naively suggest that this is the long-awaited sign that China is responding to US pressure on the North. That is almost certainly the wrong interpretation. China is playing a long game and a smart game in Northeast Asia, and its goal is to change, not reinforce, the status quo.

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  • Thirdsyphon

    China might have a keen interest in reining in North Korea’s military excesses to slow the pace of Japanese rearmament (to say nothing of India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and South Korea), but a true reconciliation between Pyongyang and Seoul would be the worst-case scenario for Beijing. If North Koreans ever get a taste of how prosperous people are in the South, they’ll turn their backs on Chinese-style communism just as quickly as they’ll junk the “Juche Eight-Fold Way” philosophy of their current regime. Reunification on the South’s terms would dramatically increase the power of an already potent U.S. ally, while advancing that ally’s reach to the border of China itself.
    In that scenario, it’s highly unlikely that Seoul would ask the U.S. forces policing the DMZ to depart the country. My guess is that they’ll ask instead that our forces relocate to their new northern frontier to provide protection against their new and even more powerful rival to the north, and that whoever is President at the time would cheerfully accept that request, leaving China trapped in a defensive posture along a border that the North Koreans once guarded for them.

  • Corlyss

    “There is some speculation, which seems reasonable to us, that this move is the result of intense pressure from Beijing, which is sick and tired of the continual crisis atmosphere that North Korea has created in Northeast Asia.”
    Little is as it seems on the surface with those two. China calls the shots. They could stop NK’s shenanigans any time they wanted to. NK is a useful arrow in China’s quiver: China can manipulate them, and often us as well (at least under this administration of boobs), by tightening or loosening their control. It’s hard to take seriously anyone who claims NK is enough of an independent actor to the extent that China has to intervene to stifle them. It’s rather like a parent who claims she is at the mercy of her 4 yr-old’s temper tantrums: hard to believe.

  • bpuharic

    I spent a week in S Korea a few years ago. While that hardly makes me an expert, the folks I talked to seemed to be very aware that China is a threat to Korean sovereignty, having seen this a few hundred years ago (Koreans, it seems, have a long memory.)

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