North Korean Nuclear Issue in China-U.S. Relations
Since the North Korean nuclear issue emerged in the early 1990s, it has been of growing importance to China-U.S. relations. On the one hand, China and the United States basically take the same position on the issue: They both call for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and oppose the development of nuclear weapons by the two Koreas; and they advocate peaceful settlement of the issue through the Six-Party Talks, because it will determine the prospects for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons as well as the peace and security of Northeast Asia.However, on the other hand, as major global powers, China and the United States play different roles in the security pattern of the peninsula, which means they have different relations with the two Koreas as well as disagreement on how to peacefully settle the nuclear issue.
How to consolidate the common ground and shared interests on the issue between China and the United States, how to promote their cooperation in the denuclearization of the peninsula and how to reduce mutual suspicions and disagreement on issues that are major concerns for both will not only contribute to a nuclear-free peninsula with lasting peace and stability, but also have a profound impact on the new model of major-country relations between China and the United States.
Basic Policies of China and the United States on the North Korean Nuclear Issue
Due to the Korean War and the lasting influence of the Cold War, China and the United States have entirely different bilateral relations with North Korea, but they share similar positions on the denuclearization of the peninsula and similar concerns.
Throughout the Cold War, China and the United States provided large quantities of military aid to their respective allies, namely South Korea, officially known as the Republic of Korea (ROK), in the case of the United States and North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), in the case of China, but neither offered aid that could generate nuclear or missile proliferation. After South Korea’s secret development of nuclear weapons was revealed in the 1970s, the U.S. government carried out direct interventions to force South Korea to give up the plan.
After the Cold War, two strategic and historic events significantly altered the security pattern of mutual deterrence between North and South Korea: The first referred to the radical change of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe so that North Korea lost a vital foreign economic aid provider and a strong military supporter; second, China accommodated the trend of the times characterized by the end of the Cold War and a thaw in the relations between the two Koreas; thus it normalized its relations with South Korea, leading to a structural change in the “balance of power” between the China-DPRK alliance and the U.S.-ROK alliance. Therefore, the Cold War between China and South Korea came to an end while the Cold War between the two Koreas continued.
The two aforementioned events marked the end of indirect trilateral military collaboration among North Korea, China and the Soviet Union, while trilateral ties among South Korea, the United States and Japan were strengthened. This change fueled the strategic determination of North Koreato accelerate its nuclear weapons program. The nuclear issue became the security focus of the peninsula as well as a new area where exchange, cooperation and conflicts between China and the United States took place.
China has a consistent and clear position on North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. Whether during or after the Cold War, it has always called for a peninsula that is free of nuclear weapons and opposed any import, deployment or storage of nuclear weapons from abroad by North Korea, as well as the development of nuclear weapons by either Korea. Therefore, although China has been providing extensive and large-scale aid to North Korea since the 1950s, it has never offered aid that might facilitate North Korea’s nuclear weapon development or delivery.
Since the nuclear issue escalated in 1994, China has always made it clear in its bilateral exchange with North Korea that it would firmly oppose North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. China denounced North Korea’s three nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 and it supported and abided by related resolutions and sanctions imposed on North Korea by the UN Security Council. In September 2013, the relevant government departments in China issued an administrative instruction prohibiting any Chinese enterprises from exporting to North Korea more than 900 civilian-military dual-use or sensitive products, a long list of over 300 pages.
Besides, in China’s view, the North Korean nuclear issue is not a simple matter of nuclear proliferation, but a strategic and comprehensive issue concerning the national security of North Korea. Given that, in the efforts to promote a North Korea free of nuclear weapons, consideration should also be given to North Korea’s security, political, economic and diplomatic concerns.
With this in mind, when the North Korean nuclear crisis broke out for a second time in early 2003, leading to acute tension between North Korea and the United States, China made concerted diplomatic efforts to initiate the Six-Party Talks among North and South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan in August 2003. The talks were held under the theme of “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”. China also emphasized that the six parties must ensure the denuclearization of the peninsula rather than just North Korea. The Six-Party Talks aim to promote a nuclear-weapons-free North Korea, and establish an institutional arrangement to ensure neither side of the peninsula tests, produces, accepts, possesses, stores, deploys or uses nuclear weapons. Denuclearization refers to the military denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; both the Koreas still have the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, the same as other sovereign states.Thanks to the advocacy and mediation by the Chinese delegation, members of the Six-Party Talks emphasized North Korea’s right of peaceful use of nuclear energy in their September 19 Joint Statement.
As for the denuclearization of North Korea, China has maintained a consistent position, namely promoting the Six-Party Talks by focusing on the nuclear issue itself while removing the external impediment, which is the hostile external environment faced by North Korea. Through the talks, China hopes that a package of comprehensive solutions can be agreed upon by the six parties based on the principles and objectives defined by the September 19 Joint Statement, and progress can be made in the normalization of the relations between North Korea and other countries by replacing the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953 with a permanent peace treaty for the Korean Peninsula. China also hopes that a cooperation mechanism for Northeast Asia can be established in which North Korea is treated as an equal member.
Unlike China, whose position has remained consistent, the United States has made complicated adjustments in its fundamental policy toward the North Korean nuclear issue. On the one hand, the Washington upholds the basic policy of a nuclear-weapons-free Korean Peninsula; on the other hand, throughout the 20 years of the Clinton administration, the Bush administration and the Obama administration, the United States has adopted three totally different attitudes and policies toward the issue, creating huge uncertainty and wavering.