North Korean Nuclear Issue: Strong Leadership from China Needed
By Sun-Jin Lee

North Korean Nuclear Issue: Strong Leadership from China Needed

Jun. 06, 2016  |     |  0 comments

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has become the most serious security concern in this region since its inception in the early 1990s. There have been many twists and turns in the development of this issue up to now, and two events that took place this year are worthy of our notice. Most important of all, in May, North Korea declared itself a nuclear weapons state at its rarely-held Worker’s Party Congress in defiance of international concerns. Secondly, China has toughened its stance on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Here, I will pay particular attention to the way the Xi Jinping government has initiated strategic moves to assume greater responsibility for the emerging order in this region and beyond.


Development of the Nuclear Program


In January this year, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test since 2006, claiming that the device tested this time was a hydrogen bomb. In the following months, it resumed its test launches of missiles, one of which was a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). North Korea’s SLBM program is particularly worrisome. If Pyongyang succeeds in its venture to create a solid-fueled nuclear-capable SLBM, it will have a “second strike” nuclear deterrent which will complicate any future conflict on the Korean peninsula. The Workers’ Party Congress, the first to be held since 1980, took place in early May. In addition to declaring North Korea’s status as a nuclear power, supreme leader Kim Jong-un, in his speech to the Congress, said that as a “responsible nuclear power,” Pyongyang will "work to realize the denuclearization of the world.” It seems to me that North Korea has withdrawn from its previous commitment to abandon its nuclear weapons program and is now determined to continue as a nuclear power.


There have been various international efforts, bilateral and multilateral, to stop the North Korean nuclear program, including the denuclearization declaration signed by South and North Korea in 1991, the North Korea-US agreement in 1994, and agreements made at the China-led Six-Party Talks (SPT). These have all ended in failure. What is worse, North Korea seems to have developed immunity to international pressure, including UN sanctions. Even the Chinese admit that North Korea is not listening to them. China is the only country in the world that has effective channels of communication with North Korea. Pyongyang’s political, security, and economic dependence on China has increased in recent years in the face of international sanctions. The supply of energy and food from China has served as a lifeline for North Korea. China is used to extending a helping hand to its neighbor whenever necessary, in particular at decisive moments.


Ambiguity of the Chinese Proposal


Unlike previous Chinese governments, however, the Xi Jinping government has resorted to more robust measures, such as sending a special envoy to Pyongyang in an effort to prevent its missile launches in February this year and supporting the toughest-ever UN sanctions imposed after Pyongyang’s nuclear tests in 2013 and again this year. Chinese leaders say that they intend to fully implement the UN sanctions regime (UNSC Resolution 2270). As US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel R. Russel has said, Beijing’s frustration with Pyongyang’s behavior is palpable. It is indeed “abnormal” that there has been no exchange of visits between Kim Jong-un and his Chinese counterpart since Kim came to power in 2011.


Despite these changes, observers in South Korea cannot help but note the strategic ambiguity inherent in China’s proposal. When UNSC Resolution 2270 was adopted in March, China proposed talks on both denuclearization and peaceful co-existence on the Korean peninsula. The Chinese media and scholars have joined forces to promote resumption of the SPT and dialogue between the parties concerned.


Another worry South Koreans have about China’s proposal for talks is that it may divert international attention away from the nuclear issue and toward peace talks between North and South Korea. 

South Koreans have a number of questions concerning the proposal: first, how can we ever be sure that North Korea is genuinely committed to abandoning its nuclear program? Now that North Korea has declared itself a nuclear power, they may make new demands for nuclear power status at the SPT and refuse to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Another worry South Koreans have about China’s proposal for talks is that it may divert international attention away from the nuclear issue and toward peace talks between North and South Korea, which is a much less urgent topic. North Korea might once again use the ambiguity of China’s position to obtain breathing space in the face of international pressure. Moreover, South Koreans wonder what the agenda of the proposed peace talks would be like considering the asymmetry between a nuclear-free South Korea and North Korea, a self-proclaimed nuclear power.


The final but most serious question is how China will deal with the international anti-nuclear proliferation regime. North Korea has developed its nuclear program outside the jurisdiction of the NPT and the IAEA. In these circumstances, the North Koreans can easily export nuclear materials and technology, even (in a worst-case scenario) to terrorist groups.


Need for Chinese Leadership


China has succeeded in playing a leading role in the SPT as well as in communicating with a stubborn North Korea.


I believe that China’s leadership will be indispensable in the immediate future, given South Korea’s inactivity, the rigid stance of the United States, and the egocentric policies of other parties concerned. China’s leadership in this issue is also commensurate with China’s rising status in the region. China is now changing from a “follower” to a “rule-setter” both within the region and globally, as evidenced by its Silk Road initiative and the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). China has made it known that it has the vision, will, and capacity to become a rule-setter.


In this regard, I look to China for leadership in addressing the problem of potential nuclear proliferation. It can provide this first of all by getting North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, which could trigger nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia. In addition, in view of the growing number of nuclear power plants — either already in operation, under construction, or planned — we need a regional mechanism to enhance nuclear governance, safety, and transparency in East Asia. It is my earnest hope that China will exercise its leadership to reduce the nuclear threat in this region and beyond. 

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