How Obama and Xi Jinping Can Resolve the North Korea Problem

George Koo

From New America Media:




President Barack Obama will meet China’s President Xi Jinping in an informal setting in Southern California on June 7-8, an added stop for President Xi en route back to China from state visits in the Caribbean.


This more or less impromptu meeting has aroused a lot of interest on both sides of the Pacific. Some pundits do not expect the meeting to move the needle on bilateral relations. Others hope for an outcome that’s more than status quo.


Since the White House initiated the invitation, Obama has an opportunity to think out of the box and present an overture that could permanently change the nature of the bilateral relations.


A good place to start would be for Obama to offer a startling new approach to the North Korea issue.


Heretofore, North Korea has been a pipsqueak state that seemed to get away with jerking the chains of both the US and China with impunity.


Despite or because of vocal protests from the US, North Korea has apparently gone ahead with an underground nuclear detonation—“apparently” because no one seems to know for sure.


Despite consternation from Japan and South Korea along with pressure from the US, North Korea has test-fired ballistic missiles in the direction of neighboring South Korea and Japan. Some supposed intercontinental range missile turned out to be of a much shorter range than expected and some were outright duds.


Each time after the government in Pyongyang has misbehaved on the international stage, it would offer to begin the six-party talks, provided of course the USl agrees to preconditions that the North Koreans know Washington will not accept.


The only recourse Washington seems to have is to lean on Beijing to get the North Koreans to behave, since the regime is completely dependent on food and energy aid from China, without which the regime would certainly collapse.


But China is equally frustrated, if not more so, by the North Koreans. Each time Beijing sends a special envoy to Pyongyang to ask the government not to build a bomb or not to fire a missile, Pyongyang assures the envoy and then goes ahead and reneges a few days after the envoy leaves.


After the most recent missile test and after finally releasing Chinese fishermen held by the North Koreans, Pyongyang promptly sent their highest-ranking military official to Beijing to again express proper contrition and again promise to participate in the much desired six party talks.



North Korea’s seemingly erratic behavior has been deliberate and carefully calibrated. It continues to push and test the boundary of what China will tolerate, because Pyongyang knows that China will not allow the regime to implode altogether.


China has two major reasons for not wanting to see the Pyongyang regime collapse. First it would have to deal with a massive refugee problem as Koreans flee north into China. Second, presumably the Seoul government will take over and unify the entire peninsula. This would mean a potential American military presence all the way to the border of China.


Up to now, Washington has been badgering Beijing to fix the problem and make Pyongyang behave but has offered nothing that would help Beijing get out of the conundrum.


At the coming meeting with Xi in southern California, Obama has the chance to put a startling offer on the table. Namely, if South Korea were to unify north and south, the US would immediately withdraw all its troops from the Korean peninsula.


Of course, American presidents have been known to make deals that they could not later deliver. Therefore Xi’s response is likely to be cautious and measured.


To offer to sit on the same side of the negotiating table opposite North Korea is to declare Obama’s recognition that the US and China have too much at stake in common to continue in adversarial postures.


Obama could point out to Xi that since China normalized its relations with South Korea (to the consternation of the North) in 1992, South Korea has become an important economic partner of China and the bilateral relations have been cordial without one-sided demands like that from the North.


If the Korean peninsula were to unify under Seoul, China would have a friendly neighbor and enjoy a stable relationship. With peace and stability being the common goal of China and the US, there would be no further reason for an American military presence.


The rationale is compelling and the proof is in the doing. In order to convince Xi and his Zhongnanhai colleagues that Obama is sincere, he would have to change his pivot to Asia into an invitation for joint exercises with the PLA Navy. In that way, the expression of peaceful intentions is actualized.


Much work has to be done before this scenario becomes real, but there are two real benefits for Obama. First, with sequestration, Obama is facing a shrinking defense budget. He still has a war budget on al Qaeda that needs to be fed. He does not have the funds to deploy troops in the Pacific where the US faces no threat.


More importantly, Obama should be thinking about his legacy to history. By brokering a lasting peace with China and becoming partners in developing a stable Asia Pacific, Obama would be remembered for altering the disastrous warpath toward self-destruction embarked by the previous Bush administration and putting America back on a path to prosperity.


Author Bio:


Dr. George Koo is a retired business consultant and a contributor to New America Media.


New America Media


Photos: New America Media; Peter Snoopy (Flickr, Creative Commons).

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