China’s North Korean Pivot

BEIJING – After a spring of heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula, a flurry of diplomatic activity in recent weeks has brought some hope of a meeting of the minds, at least between China, South Korea, and the United States. But the emergence of a viable consensus on how to minimize the security risks emanating from North Korea’s mercurial leadership remains to be found.

After a reportedly tough meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Vice Marshall Choe Ryong-hae, one of the four members of North Korea’s ruling presidium, the US-China summit in California took place with North Korea as one of the central points of discussion. This was quickly followed by a Beijing summit between Xi and South Korean President Park Geun-hye. The fact that Xi participated in all three meetings underscores two truths: China’s policy toward North Korea is the key to a solution to the problems posed by North Korea, and China may be actively searching for a new approach to its wayward ally.

China’s interest in a new North Korea policy is not entirely new. After all, China’s policy toward the country has been gradually moving in a more constructive direction for the past two decades, reflecting China’s growing international prominence, as well as its leaders’ cautious embrace of the global role that their country’s new economic might has provided.

In the immediate post-Cold War period, China cooperated with other concerned parties in the process of resolving the first North Korea nuclear crisis of 1993-1994; but it tended to regard the North’s nuclear ambitions mainly as a bilateral issue between North Korea and the US. President Bill Clinton seemed to agree, and adopted a bilateral approach to the nuclear crisis, which resulted in the two countries’ Agreed Framework of 1994.