RIETI Report October 2003

U.S.-China Power Game Over North Korea <RIETI Featured Fellow> Michael YOO

This month's featured article

U.S.-China Power Game Over North Korea <RIETI Featured Fellow> Michael YOO

Michael YOO Research Associate, RIETI

Greetings from RIETI

The World Judo Championships held in Osaka last month marked a return of the competition to its homeland after 8 years, and perhaps for some participants a return to the traditional values and codes of the "sport." There were numerous reports of elated contestants forgetting the sanctity of the dojo in the heat of a winning throw, and replacing a measured bow with expressions of joy more commonly seen at football matches. The austere bow is not just a ritual formality, but surely the basic foundation of an art of throwing, involving a game of balance, where losing one's focus for one second can result in being thrown; hence the need for gravity and restraint. Yet, the informalities seen in Osaka are just part of a long-running trend which sees the sports field coming to increasingly reflect marketplace principles, where winning matters more than sportsmanship. However, if the rules of engagement are not properly observed a dirty fight ensues from which no winner can emerge. This month, RIETI Report spoke to Mr. Michael Yoo about the delicate game of balance going on between the U.S. and China over North Korea. (DC)


Michael YOO
Mr. Yoo holds a BA in Political and Diplomatic Science from Yonsei University, and he also attended the Graduate School of Public Administration there. On completing his studies in 1991, Mr. Yoo worked as a correspondent in the news department of the Seoul Broadcasting System, before spending four years as a fellow of the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management. During this time, he also worked as a special correspondent for the Weekly Chosun, as well as acting as a special external consultant researcher to the chairman of the Daewoo group. In 2002, Mr. Yoo served as a visiting fellow of the Graduate School of Political Management of George Washington University, and engaged in such activities as being director of the "E-Government in Asia Project" there, and taking up the post of program director for Pacific 21 in Washington D.C. (a forum on policy relating to Japan, China, Korea, and the U.S.). Throughout his career, Mr. Yoo has written for the Chosun Daily, the Monthly Chosun and the IT Chosun in Korea, and had articles published in the Japanese magazine Foresight. Other publications include Dream and Working (Nanan Publications, 1994) and E-Government (Chuo nippou Publications, 2000).

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U.S.-China Power Game Over North Korea

RIETI Report: The sense of crisis over North Korea's nuclear program is intensifying with each passing day. What is the role of the U.S. and China in coping with this problem?

Yoo: Six-party talks were held by China, Russia, the United States, North Korea, South Korea and Japan at the end of August, and the construction of a multilateral framework for dialogue is now under way. In actual negotiations with North Korea, however, it is the United States and China who are playing the key roles. What is also noteworthy is the apparent shift in China's policy on the Korean Peninsula. For a long time, Beijing had maintained a policy of noninterference, insisting that the problem should be solved peacefully and only by South and North Korea. Then the Chinese stance suddenly reversed, and Beijing began to get actively involved in the issue; or rather, began to "interfere."

The turning point came in February 12, 2003. At a meeting of the Board of Governors for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) China voted for the adoption of a resolution that included the decision to report North Korean noncompliance with obligations concerning its nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council. This was despite the fact that from the moment the U.S. first proposed that the issue of North Korea's nuclear program be referred to the Security Council, right up until the day before the vote at the IAEA, China had remained opposed to the very idea of adopting any kind of IAEA resolution against North Korea.

RIETI Report: What form has China's involvement in the North Korean issue taken so far?

Yoo: Since Feb. 12 China has been trying to find ways to solve the problem, frequently sending officials between Pyongyang, Seoul, and Washington. On April 23, China hosted three-way talks in Beijing with U.S. and North Korean officials. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs thus paved the way for resuming the deadlocked talks between the U.S. and North Korea.

In early July, prior to Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo's visit to the U.S. for talks with a series of key White House members including Colin Powell, the Chinese government sent Wang Yi, another vice foreign minister in charge of the North Korean problem, to Washington. Vice Foreign Minister Wang went to convey China's three guiding principles for the issue of the Korean Peninsular, which are: (1) the North Korean problem should be solved peacefully, (2) the dispute should be resolved through diplomatic dialogue between South and North Korea, and (3) the Korean Peninsula should be denuclearized. This was meant to be a strong message to the U.S. from Beijing that the North Korean nuclear program is not only a U.S. concern, but also one for China.

RIETI Report: What were the reasons behind China's shift to a policy of "interference"?

Yoo: China's change in stance was more a response to U.S. expectations and requests than Beijing's own decision; the U.S. believes that China is the key to solving the North Korean problem. Though, while it is questionable whether Beijing's political muscle is powerful enough to move Kim Jong-il, China certainly plays a critical role in the North Korean economy, which fact the U.S. believes can be used by China to exert major political influence over the country. Washington had been hoping that Beijing would take more aggressive steps to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and such expectations can be read between the lines of an article carried in the Washington Post on July 16. "The Bush administration is considering admitting thousands of North Korean refugees into the United States," the Washington Post reported. Although the government has yet to settle on how many, the paper said, "One faction is pushing for as many as 300,000 refugees," while those afraid of hurting relations with China are countering with a "proposal to limit the number to 3,000." Should the U.S. actually decide to accept 10,000 refugees from North Korea, it would be enough to undermine the very foundation of the current Pyongyang regime, and this article suggests that the U.S. government has begun to explore ways of bringing down North Korea from inside, avoiding the use of weapons.

Yet, the possibility of a mass exodus of North Koreans poses an imminent threat for China, which would inevitably become the gateway for those wishing to head for the U.S. If China maintained its policy of sending North Korean refugees back into their own country, it would invite criticisms from the U.S. and the rest of the world. The U.S. knows very well what this refugee problem means to China, and Washington is signaling to Beijing that the U.S. would take the matter up as a human rights issue if China failed to respond appropriately and quickly.

RIETI Report: Could you elaborate on the background of the U.S.-China power game over the Korean Peninsula?

Yoo: Cooperation between the two countries is not something new. Ever since the U.S. and China began talks on normalizing their diplomatic ties, the problem of the Korean Peninsula has been a major issue of concern. During the Cold War era, the Korean Peninsula was at the forefront of ideological confrontation between East and West. The two countries' original stances regarding the Korean Peninsula can be found in the records of conversations between former U.S. President Richard Nixon and the top leaders of China during normalization talks in February 1972. There were three basic principles established during the serial talks.

Firstly, in the Nixon-Mao talks on Feb. 21, 1972, the two leaders confirmed their basic stances, and their remarks indicate that the U.S. and China had reached a tacit agreement that neither side would try to take full control over the Korean Peninsula, but there would be a firm response should the other side try to violate this. This remains the basic foundation of the U.S.-China relationship over the Korean Peninsula today.

Secondly, during the subsequent first round of Nixon-Zhou talks on Feb. 22, 1972, Zhou clarified that the problem of the Korean Peninsula, from Beijing's point of view, is closely linked to the problem of Taiwan.

From the first round of Nixon-Zhou talks on Feb. 22, 1972
Zhou: "Why do we send the Chinese people's volunteers during the Korean War? Because [US President Harry S.] Truman compelled us [to help North Korea]. He sent the Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Straits so that it wasn't possible for us to recover Taiwan."

In other words, he claimed that China would not have had any reason to help North Korea if the U.S. had not intervened over Taiwan, suggesting that China would be ready to cooperate with the U.S. on the issue of the Korean Peninsula if the U.S. demonstrates understanding of Beijing's policy toward Taiwan.

Thirdly, Nixon and Zhou confirmed that their views on the Korean Peninsula were basically the same and they agreed that the outbreak of war on the peninsula should be avoided.

From the second round of Nixon-Zhou talks on Feb. 23, 1972
Zhou: "As for the question of Korea, we know of course your ideas, and of course you also know our ideas. First, the official policy of President [Nixon] is that he is prepared to finally withdraw troops from Korea in the future, and also to prevent the entry of Japanese forces into South Korea because this would not be beneficial to the cause of peace in the Far East. How does one promote contracts between North and South Korea? How does one promote peaceful reunification? That question will take a long time."

Nixon: "What is important here is that both of us exert influence to restrain our allies. ...
The Koreans, both the North and the South, are emotionally impulsive people. It is important that both of us exert influence to see that these impulses, and their belligerency, don't create incidents which would embarrass our two countries. It would be silly, and unreasonable to have the Korean Peninsula be the scene of a conflict between our two governments. It happened once, and it must never happen again. I think that with the Prime Minister and I working together we can prevent this."

RIETI Report: What are the prospects for cooperation between the U.S. and China in coping with North Korean issue?

Yoo: It must not be forgotten that there is a fundamental difference between China and the U.S. in their stance on dealing with the North Korean problem. Nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and anti-terrorism are the pretexts for the U.S. intervention. In contrast, China, by playing a key role in solving the North Korean issue, hopes to form favorable relationships with an integrated Korea in the long run, while trying to elicit a more understanding and concessionary attitude from the U.S. over the problem of Taiwan.

To realize these goals, China has no choice but to move closer to the U.S. The longer it takes to solve the North Korean problem, the greater the influence China can exert, thus enabling Beijing to better relationships with the U.S. and draw out more concessions over Taiwan. This explains exactly why China has no intention of agreeing to the U.S. demands for the removal of Kim Jong-il, let alone the socialist regime of North Korea. It is important to see the problem of the North Korean nuclear program not only from a security viewpoint - with regard to WMDs or anti-terrorism - but also from the viewpoint of international politics. As a country neighboring North Korea, Japan needs to closely watch the power game that the U.S. and China are waging there.


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