Nuclear Negotiations on the Korean Peninsula amid Great-Power Competition
Olivia Truesdale

Nuclear Negotiations on the Korean Peninsula amid Great-Power Competition

Interview with John Delury
October 5, 2021

A myriad of interests underlie regional powers’ involvement with the Korean Peninsula, but divergences in the strategic priorities of the United States, China, and the Republic of Korea (ROK) impede policy synergy on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Without a multilateral effort, North Korea is unlikely to be coaxed out of isolation and into relinquishing its weapons programs. Olivia Truesdale spoke with John Delury, a professor in Chinese studies at Yonsei University, about the impact of great-power competition and unaligned strategic objectives on relations with North Korea and denuclearization.

What are the United States’, China’s, and South Korea’s priorities for the Korean Peninsula, and how do they affect the denuclearization process?

There is a very different chemistry and set of priorities when you are looking at North Korea from South Korea or the United States. Regardless of political affiliation, the mainstream U.S. foreign policy establishment has one priority and one interest when it comes to North Korea: denuclearization. The problem is that most people are resigned to the fact that the Kim regime will not relinquish its nuclear capabilities, yet they are unwilling to give up this goal. There is not much conversation about what other priorities one might pursue regarding North Korea policy. The American strategic mind is so set on denuclearization that this question has not been asked or explored deeply. The United States’ position, in that sense, is easy to define.

South Korea is at the other end of the spectrum. There are many complex issues involving North Korea, starting with the familial ties between the North and the South and social connections like shared language, food, and culture. There is of course a gulf from 70 years of an artificial division that has alienated the two sides and simultaneously created a hope for reconnection and the potential to recognize deeper similarities across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

China is somewhere in between. For historical and military reasons, Beijing prioritizes the geography of Korea in a conventional way; the not-so-ancient history of China’s capital being attacked or threatened via the Korean Peninsula is a very real concern. China thus wants and needs a stable and peaceful environment on the Korean Peninsula, which drives much of its relationship with North Korea. The nuclear or non-nuclear nature of North Korea is just one factor in that calculus, whereas for the United States the nuclear issue is the calculus itself. Even if there were no nuclear issue, China would prioritize the Korean Peninsula differently from the United States.

Another dimension is that for the United States denuclearization of North Korea is not just about North Korea. Given the fatalism at this point about forcing Pyongyang to give up its nukes, the point of pressure and sanctions is perhaps not really to get North Korea to denuclearize but rather to warn other countries about how miserable they would be if they followed North Korea’s example. When fixating on North Korean denuclearization, the United States is in fact talking to everybody else—South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and, beyond the neighborhood, Saudi Arabia and Iran. In this view, the whole nonproliferation regime suddenly comes to hinge on making sure that North Korea does not succeed in becoming the fourth country to slip the net of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

While China shares a national interest in the nonproliferation regime, it does not see itself as the regime’s guardian, which makes for different dynamics vis-à-vis North Korea. It is a quintessentially American phenomenon that the meaning of denuclearization is shifting away from North Korean denuclearization to global nonproliferation.

Has China’s strategic outlook toward the DPRK changed in recent years? Under what conditions might the political relationship between North Korea and China change China’s strategic position toward the Korean Peninsula?

I see deep continuity since the end of the Cold War, when China normalized relations with South Korea and set the basic strategic objective of enjoying normal, friendly relations with the North and South simultaneously. That objective implies an acceptance of a status quo of a divided Korean Peninsula. While Chinese officials will not openly affirm division, I see no change in that policy implication. It also means that China accepts the legitimacy and permanence of South Korea—in a way that the United States, by contrast, does not accept North Korea. The United States deep down believes that there is one legitimate Korea, South Korea, which is quite different from China’s strategic outlook. Another implication of that strategy is that China wants a peaceful and stable Korean Peninsula, while the United States has a higher tolerance for instability. I do not see a big change in recent years in these fundamental differences between how the United States and China strategically look at the peninsula.

With respect to the political dimension of Beijing’s relationship with Pyongyang, there have been significant ups and downs in the Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un relationship. Those fluctuations brought the bilateral relationship to one of its all-time historical lows in 2017. Comparatively, the strategic relationship has seen more continuity in the whole post–Cold War period. If we look at the low point of bilateral relations back in 2017, despite its severity, I did not see it affecting China’s strategic viewpoint. The tension did not push China to give up on North Korea; rather, Beijing used hostile and negative political signaling to reciprocate the negativity from Pyongyang and managed the politics to get North Korea to realign with China’s strategic preference of behaving at least slightly less provocatively.

If Kim Jong-un ever succeeds in making a fundamental shift to a normalized relationship with South Korea and the United States, which is what was starting in 2018, and were to continue and deepen those relationships, Beijing might have to rethink its strategic posture toward the Korean Peninsula. But that remains a hypothesis to be tested.

What synergy exists between the United States, South Korea, and China in negotiations with North Korea, and how does great-power competition affect policy coordination?

My theory of how to make progress in negotiations hinges on Seoul and Washington working closely together, having trusted relationships, and being on the same page in how they see the North Korean nuclear issue and what they want to do about it. That kind of alignment existed during a brief window in the last years of the Clinton administration when diplomats like Wendy Sherman and her boss, Madeline Albright, worked together with the liberal South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, an advocate of inter-Korean dialogue and reconciliation.

Synergy between the United States and South Korea is essential in making diplomatic headway with North Korea. China does not necessarily need to be included in the process. North Korea’s strategic interests include weaning itself off excessive dependency on China, and improving ties with Washington and Seoul is an obvious way to do that. In my view, North Korean dependence on China is not a comfortable default state for Kim Jong-un. He and his father before him have gone to great lengths to develop a nuclear weapon not only to deter the United States and defend against a stronger and wealthier South Korea but also to increase autonomy from China. Rather than be protected by China’s nuclear umbrella, North Korea is now protected by its own, which ensures Pyongyang a degree of autonomy. For the Kim regime, improving relations in meaningful ways with the United States and South Korea, as we saw in 2018, moves North Korea out of China’s orbit and gives it options in terms of its security and economic development, which is a more comfortable position.

Great-power competition and increasing hostility in the relationship between the United States and China presents an opportunity for the United States and ROK to return to the 2018 playbook, draw North Korea out, signal that the United States accepts the DPRK as a counterpart, and identify areas to work together. When the United States, DPRK, and ROK change patterns of interaction, North Korea is nudged slightly out of China’s orbit. China would naturally have mixed feelings about such a shift. If the relationship with the United States, ROK, and DPRK went too far too fast, the political dynamics between China and North Korea could crack the strategic edifice. However, I doubt it would happen that way. I think North Korea would be careful not to completely lose China. Instead, the process would likely happen quite slowly, and perhaps in subtle or cloaked forms. China would see what is happening, but not stop it.

Beijing has a lot of things to worry about, after all. For all of its importance, North Korea is nowhere near China’s top priority. China, if smart, would let some of the shift toward the United States and ROK happen because North Korea can be a huge headache for Beijing. Every missile and nuclear test helps the United States and its allies make the argument for their own arms buildup, much of which is ultimately about China, not North Korea. North Korea becoming closer to South Korea and the United States would enhance stability, improve life for North Koreans, and be good for the regional neighborhood. Under roughly the current circumstances, this shift would take the form of the United States and South Korea working together to change their relationship with North Korea while China is carefully but deliberately cut out of that process.

How do North and South Korea feel about the involvement of the United States and China in inter-Korean relations, especially denuclearization?

In South Korea’s case, there are political shadings that you could sketch for how a conservative, liberal, or progressive is likely to answer a question about what role the United States and China should play. The farther you go to the left of the spectrum, the more you will hear a distaste for U.S.-driven involvement.

On the far left, this takes the form of blaming the United States for being the source of the problem by threatening North Korea. Yet the more common liberal, as opposed to left, view is that the United States is not to blame but does not always act in ways that are helpful. U.S. policy cannot achieve what the United States cares about (denuclearization) and is impeding what South Korea cares about (reconciliation). South Korea is not allowed to work on healing the divide while being held up by a goal that is making negative progress. There is a huge reservoir of frustration about this situation.

On the right side of the spectrum, you hear a bit of the opposite. The view is that the status quo is China’s fault as a “Communist brother-in-arms” that props up the North Korean regime, and that China interferes with South Korea’s defense. One prominent example is Chinese economic sanctions on South Korea for installing the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in 2017.

I think we saw Kim Jong-un’s plan A in 2018—aligning improvements in inter-Korean relations with improvements in DPRK-U.S. relations. We saw very proactive participation on the North Korean side with South Korea, and Kim seemed comfortable and in his element that year. I believe that eventually he could return to that plan if the United States and South Korea are willing to engage. China did not play an active role then, but Kim was very careful. He made several trips to China as the respectful leader of the smaller state, but with his head held high because he knew he had leverage from engaging with other powers. In the end, diplomacy did not lead to the desired outcome, so Kim moved on to plans B and C. The question is can all the parties return to some version of 2018.

What role will great-power competition between the United States and China play in future inter-Korean relationship developments?

I do not see the political will in the Biden administration right now to drive the negotiations down the line, despite the well-qualified people Biden has picked to work on North Korea issues. Though there is political will in South Korea, North Korea will not make a deal with an outgoing South Korean president. If the administration waits on the next South Korean president to start moving, Biden’s first term will be approaching its halfway point. Unless North Korea is actively testing intercontinental ballistic missiles or nuclear devices, there will be no pressure to pursue negotiations. For example, the cruise missile tests and ballistic missile tests in September have only slightly increased attention to the issue.

Despite these constraints, I worry that we are missing a window for negotiation. In the coming months, the Biden administration could afford to be much bolder as it works with a familiar partner, South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who is willing to invest political capital in the North Korea issue and has had three summits and successful negotiations (in process and product) with Kim. I understand the hesitation since Kim remains in a withdrawn posture—largely due to the pandemic. But if the situation is viewed from the perspective of Indo-Pacific strategy and North Korea policy, it is hard not to see this moment as a missed opportunity. A friend of mine uses the metaphor of a house with a basement full of gasoline. Even though the roof is not on fire, should we not get our buckets, hose, and a pump and figure out how to get gasoline out of the basement? I think that metaphor illustrates the current situation.

John Delury is Professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies. He serves as chair of the undergraduate Program in International Studies at Yonsei’s Underwood International College and founding director of the Yonsei Center on Oceania Studies. Based in Seoul since 2010, he is the author, with Orville Schell, of Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century (2013) and is writing a book about U.S.-China relations in the early Cold War. His articles can be found in journals such as Asian Survey, Late Imperial China, and Journal of Asian Studies.

This interview was conducted by Olivia Truesdale, a project associate with the Political and Security Affairs group at NBR.