China is Key to Peace on the Korean Peninsula
Photo Credit: AP
By Rachael M. Rudolph

China is Key to Peace on the Korean Peninsula

Jun. 14, 2018  |     |  0 comments

On May 27, 2018, North Korea committed to “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” in a surprise summit with the South Korean President Moon Jae-in,1 and on June 12, 2018, Kim Jung-un, who has been the Supreme Leader of North Korea since 2011 and the Leader of the Workers’ Party of Korea since 2012, sat down with the president of the United States of America, Donald Trump, to discuss the path toward actualizing peace on the Korean Peninsula. The meeting and the summit are truly revolutionary when considering that the late North Korean Supreme leader Kim Il-sung had requested a meeting with the United States through his Chinese, Egyptian and Romanian channels during the period of Sino-American rapprochement between the years of 1970 and 1975, led by Henry Kissinger on behalf of former US President Richard Nixon. At that time, the US had refused, stating such a meeting did not warrant geostrategic significance.2

Today, North Korea has geostrategic significance for not just the United States but the entire global community of nations, and the grandson of the first Supreme Leader has the opportunity to fulfill his grandfather’s dreams of rapprochement and normalization of relations with the United States of America, as well as working hand-in-hand with state and non-state actors alike to facilitate peace on the Korean Peninsula. However, North and South Korea and the United States are not the only actors who are critical for actualizing peace and implementing the agreements reached. Russia, Japan and China are also strategically significant states, but it is China which will be the most critical actor for the US in the next phase of facilitating real peace.

The US has neither doubted China’s role nor strategic significance for the development of US-NK relations, and North Korea, arguably, serves as a strategic actor within the context of Sino-American constructive engagement, which is an approach advocated by Henry Kissinger and the US National Committee on US-China Relations.3 Given the importance of China and taking into consideration the role played by public perception, this short article traces how China is framed within the context of North Korea in the media articles published by the US Federal News, the New York Times, and the Washington Post between January 1, 2001 and June 1, 2018, which were obtained via Nexus-Uni, a newspaper and newswire database.4 Specifically, it seeks to answer the following question: How is China’s role in, and relationship to, North Korea framed in the US media? The framing of China matters because it is the Sino-American relationship that will be front and center in the debates between the US Congress and the Trump administration on implementation of any agreement reached between North Korea and the United States.

Framing China’s Leadership Role in the Denuclearization Talks and its Relationship to North Korea

The US Federal News covers press releases, statements, speeches, transcripts and Voice of America stories which cover US administration officials and senior level diplomats as well as members of the US Congress. The Washington Post and New York Times cover stories which are episodically salient for the US public and/or government. Foreign policy issues covered by the US mainstream media typically cite authoritative sources from the policymaking community, including US and foreign subject matter specialists, experts and well-known academics who serve as policy advisors. Each outlet also makes assumptions regarding their target audience’s understanding of the issues-at-hand. The US Federal News’ articles do not per se provide a contextual background on issues covered whereas the Washington Post and New York Times do; the latter also generalize more and use discourse which is more easily understood by a reader who is not a subject matter specialist or expert. This means that the US audience for each media source differs, with the US Federal News primarily targeting actors within and connected to the US policymaking community and the Washington Post and New York Times targeting the US public.

An examination of the actual media coverage between 2001 and 2018, which covers the Bush, Obama and some of the Trump administration, finds that 54 percent of the coverage came from federal news while only 46 percent came from the other two outlets.5 In the Bush administration, 66 percent of the coverage came from federal sources and of that coverage, 38 percent focused specifically on North Korea while 48 percent mentioned North Korea as one of many issues which were vital to the Sino-American relationship. There was 47 percent federal coverage in the Obama administration and only 33 percent (thus far) in the Trump administration. This means that there are qualitatively different images which emerge of China’s role in the denuclearization talks and its relationship to North Korea, and because of the salience of federal news, the framed images or perceptions held by actors within and connected to the US policymaking community matter more than those within the US public at least (at this point) for pondering how to proceed in facilitating implementation of any agreements which are eventually reached between North Korea and the US. The underlying assumptions here are that framing of actors and issues matter for understanding the boundaries upon which policymakers, policy advisors and activists can operate within a given context, and those boundaries matter for thinking about the way to overcome the cognitive or perceptual pitfalls to peace in the Korean Peninsula.

The Bush Administration (2001-2008)

The Bush administration pursued more of a business-oriented approach to China on the North Korea issue, which was referred to by former US Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick as a stakeholder approach, and a constructive engagement approach in its dialogue with Chinese officials.6 In the stakeholder approach, policy issues were separated along the domestic and global continuum, situated within short and long-term dimensions, and the domestic and foreign policy actors’ positions and policy preferences on specific issues were taken into consideration. The strategic separation of issues as such contributed to the US administration officials’ ability to constructively engage their Chinese counterparts on a variety of issues including North Korea. In regard to North Korea, the Bush administration viewed China as a key strategic actor in the denuclearization talks and its relationship with North Korea as vital for attaining nuclear non-proliferation and peace in the Korean Peninsula. The administration, however, never asserted that China had the ability to either control or exert influence over North Korea; rather, that was a view more commonly held by a minority within the US government.7 10 percent of the actual federal coverage referenced China’s ability to exert control over or influence North Korea.

The evolution of the Sino-American relationship provides some excellent lessons from which we can learn on how to navigate US-North Korean rapprochement and normalization of relations so that peace on the Korean Peninsula becomes a reality.

Within the US Congress, there was more variance on China’s leadership in the denuclearization talks and its relationship with North Korea. Some individual congressional representatives questioned who is responsible for North Korea’s continued nuclear proliferation policies and highlighted the need for China to do more to encourage North Korea to pursue nuclear non-proliferation and to abide by the rules of the international community, while others highlighted the strategic relationship between the two countries and the importance of that for attaining nuclear non-proliferation on the Korean Peninsula. Congressional reports which were published in the US Federal News were more critical of China, but both US congressional and administration coverage highlighted the nature and type of interactions taken between China and the US and what specifically China has done.

Coverage of this period in the Washington Post and New York Times did not diverge too much from the US federal coverage, but they also primarily relied on government sources. There was more coverage though of Chinese subject matter specialists, experts and policymakers, who in turn either responded to points of contention between the two countries or highlighted and placed in context the Chinese position and policy preferences. Most of the articles provided a general overview of relations, mentioned the issues of concern, and highlighted the nature of cooperation and the points of contention. The articles which specifically focused on North Korea primarily corresponded to meetings or major events. The only point of divergence was the change in tone in the articles during episodic, contentious periods on issues other than North Korea.

The Obama Administration (2009-2016)

North Korea was not a central issue in the Sino-American relationship for the Obama administration. In fact, 75 percent of the federal coverage primarily discussed North Korea as one of many issues, while the majority of the 25 percent made no specific reference to North Korea. Only two percent of the actual coverage focused on North Korea. The central concern for the Obama administration in this period was actually the Sino-American relationship itself and the expansion of issues for which the two countries were engaged in dialogue. Human rights were salient for the administration under Secretary of State Clinton and the first part of Secretary of State Kerry’s tenure, but the economy and strategic security dialogue became the central focus for the administration for the remainder of the years. The emphasis on the economy, the combative nature of the human rights dialogue, and the failure of US policymakers to take into considerations China’s own domestic limitations on those issues contributed to the perception of a contentious relationship between the two counties, which had a spillover effect on the North Korea issue. Whereas the previous administration was able to keep the issues separate, the Obama administration tended to conflate the issues in the Sino-American relationship, which resulted in limited cooperation on key strategic issues such as North Korea.

On the issue of North Korea, the Obama administration highlighted the importance of Sino-American cooperation for the realization of the common, shared goals between the two countries, namely nuclear non-proliferation and a peaceful region. North Korea was framed as not just a threat to America’s security but also the region, thereby providing a justification for the administration’s efforts to bolster and expand the US alliance system and install missile defense technology in South Korea. Expansion of the US alliance system and the installation of missile defense technology are two issues which are contentious within the Sino-American relationship and for Chinese domestic politics. They are also issues which exacerbate tensions in US-North Korean relations. However, North Korea’s provocative behavior provided a foundation upon which both the United States and China could engage in dialogue and take joint action. Actions during this period were primarily through the United Nations Security Council. The US Federal News coverage did highlight China’s actions toward North Korea. US congressional coverage during this period was fairly sparse, with many of the articles simply notifying the public of hearings which included North Korea and/or that North Korea was discussed. There was only one individual congressional statement which was published on North Korea, and it highlighted the US Senate’s intent to hold North Korea accountable through sanctions. Unlike the previous period where members of Congress from both parties called on the administration to take action, this period witnessed periods of partisan politics as well as battles between the executive and legislative branches which seemed to have an impact on the issues of concern between China and the United States and on the issue of North Korea.

Coverage in this period in the Washington Post and New York Times surpassed coverage in the previous administration as well as federal news coverage in this administration. It was in this coverage where an image of contentious relations emerged. China was cast no longer as a rising, emergent responsible global power but, rather, one which is assertive and adopting positions on North Korea that threaten its position in the region and underscore more cooperative relations between the two countries. This change in coverage corresponded to the change in discourse used by the Obama administration and Secretary of State Clinton in particular, on the position adopted by China as a result of North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean vessel. Another change in tone would occur under Secretary of State Kerry, and it was less contentious but still far different from the almost friendly, respectful manner in which relations were described in the previous administration. Nonetheless, the coverage highlighted China’s action and provided readers with a context to the history of challenges in the nature of relations between the two countries.      

The Trump Administration (2017-Present)

Coverage during this period was relatively sparse give that the Trump administration has been in office for such a short period of time. As will be recalled from the introduction, analysis of news articles stopped on June 1, 2018. The Trump administration did make North Korea a priority, and so coverage on it dominated the news media but it did not dominate the media covering North Korea within the context of the Sino-American relationship. Coverage on the Sino-American relationship was dominated by the economy and trade-related issues. Nonetheless, in the articles covered in this period, the Trump administration highlighted the importance of China’s leadership for denuclearization. China’s relationship with North Korea was also seen to be critical for attaining peace on the Korean Peninsula, and it will be central to developing US-North Korean relations following the US-North Korean summit in Singapore. Therefore, understanding how China’s leadership role in the denuclearization talks and relationship with North Korea have been framed in the US media matters for thinking about alternative ways to overcome the pitfalls which will emerge in the next phase of facilitating peace.


To conclude, facilitating peace requires states and non-state actors alike to set aside their ideological, political and socioeconomic differences to make possible what too many believe to be impossible: peace on the Korean Peninsula and attaining it without the drawing a drop of blood. Making peace possible requires the adoption of a multipronged approach which focuses on the issues and the corresponding set of actors for each set of issues. As was demonstrated in the media coverage across the US administrations, perception of the issues-at-hand matter more, and issues which drive actors are far more relevant than the actors’ interests and goals. The evolution of the Sino-American relationship provides some excellent lessons from which we can learn on how to navigate US-North Korean rapprochement and normalization of relations so that peace on the Korean Peninsula becomes a reality.


1. Kim, Hyung-Jim and Klug, Foster. Associated Press. (2018, May 26). Seoul: North Korea committed to summit with Trump, denuclearization. ABC News. Retrieved from:

2. See the following article for more details: Xia, Y. and Shen, Z. (2014). China’s Last Ally: Beijing’s Policy toward North Korea during the U.S.–China Rapprochement, 1970–1975*. Diplomatic History38(5): 1083-1113.

3. The website for the National Committee on United States and China Relations is as follows:

4. The headline keyword search terms were North Korea, China and the US or United States. A total of 99 documents were selected for analysis. Data were then examined to understand context, issues of concern, and the way in which North Korea was referenced in relation to Sino-American relations. Qualitative differences of the articles were assessed according to whether North Korea was actually focused on in the context of Sino-American relations or just simply mentioned as an issue area where the two countries can cooperate with one another, and whether there was specific reference to China’s ability to either control or exert influence over North Korea. Temporally, the analysis began with the year of 2001 because of there being a marked a change in the nature and quality of Sino-American relations in the post-September 11, 2001 period.

5. The total number of articles by administrative periods are as follows: 44 articles in total for the Bush administration, and 29 of those articles were from US Federal News; 43 articles for the Obama administration, and 20 of those were from US Federal News; and, finally, 12 articles for the Trump administration, and 4 of those were from US Federal News.

6. State Depart: ‘Two Levels’ to US-China Relationship, State’s Zoellick Stats. (2006, April 20). US Fed News.

7. 79 percent of the coverage in the US Federal News consisted of releases, statements, speeches from or stories on administration officials, while 21 percent consisted of congressional statements or committee or commission transcripts.  

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