China Playing a Long Game on North Korea
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.