And, China is the winner.
We believe that this pivot toward Beijing is no routine oscillation in North Korean policy. The drive to normalize relations with the U.S. from 1991 to 2009 had been real, sustained and rooted in Kim Il Sung’s deep concern about the regime’s future in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Perhaps there was no better demonstration of the North’s approach in those years than the situation on Oct. 25, 2000 — the 50th anniversary of the entry of the Chinese People’s Volunteers into the Korean War. Who was in Pyongyang on that date meeting Kim Jong Il? The Chinese defense minister? No, he was cooling his heels while Kim met with the U.S. secretary of State. That was no accident of scheduling on Pyongyang’s part; it would not happen again today.
If the paradigm shift is real, we expect the North in the near to medium term to make far less overt trouble. Less tension on the Korean peninsula? What could be wrong with that? Nothing, as long as it is understood that such tranquillity will also provide a veil for the North’s continuing pursuit of nuclear weapons and increasingly sophisticated delivery systems. With the onset of stability and growing Chinese-North Korean cooperation, Pyongyang may well calculate that the outside world’s focus on the North Korean nuclear program will become diffuse. Indeed, the North Koreans have long assumed that given enough time, the world would resign itself to their nuclear weapons, as happened with India and Pakistan.
To help things along, it isn’t out of the question that Pyongyang might even agree to some U.S. efforts to contain the nuclear program through a series of what Washington calls “pre-steps.” The North has repeatedly expressed willingness to consider discussion of its uranium enrichment program and moratoriums on missile and nuclear tests. As unilateral actions, these would have short-term benefits by further stabilizing the situation to provide additional room for discussions. But in the absence of long, serious negotiations between the two sides, they will turn out to be no more meaningful than the ill-considered agreements of the now moribund six-party talks.
All of which brings us back to the deepening North Korean-Chinese ties, and the downgrading in Pyongyang’s calculations of relations with the United States. There was considerable momentum behind the North’s strategy for engaging the U.S. in past negotiations. That is no longer the case, with consequences we have only started to feel.
Is this all just a strange dance?