North Korea is in the news again and, surprisingly, it’s not because of yet another nuclear threat against the U.S. or its allies.
North Korea will figure prominently in two sets of meetings: today’s U.S.–China summit between President Obama and Xi Jinping and resumed inter-Korean talks this weekend. The media is once again awash with hopeful speculation that Beijing has agreed to finally get tough with its troublesome ally and that Pyongyang has turned over a new leaf by abandoning its belligerent ways. Not so fast.
The Chinese–North Korean relationship has never been as close as widely perceived, even during Kim Il-sung’s rule. Relations ebbed further during Kim Jong-il’s era, and Kim Jong-un has yet to finagle an invitation to Beijing. Despite being North Korea’s BFF, China has less influence over Pyongyang than might be expected, though it still has more than any other country. The problem has been that, to date, Beijing has been unwilling to use what influence it has.
Whenever the United Nations Security Council sought to respond to North Korea’s violations of U.N. resolutions, Beijing repeatedly obstructed more comprehensive and effective sanctions. China blocked any U.N. response to two North Korean attacks on South Korea in 2010, repeatedly insisted on watered-down resolution text, stonewalled U.N. reports on North Korean sanctions evasion, restricted the number of violators being added to the sanctions list, and turned a blind eye to North Korean proliferation occurring on its soil.
Pundits have premised that the new Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping has become suitably aggravated with Pyongyang’s antics that it is now willing to increase pressure on Pyongyang. Perhaps. To be sure, there have been some encouraging signs. Chinese leaders reportedly read the diplomatic riot act to visiting North Korean envoy Choe Ryong-hae, severed the Bank of China’s ties with the North Korean Foreign Trade Bank, and has been slightly more direct in its public criticism of North Korean belligerence.
But the much-vaunted criticism by Chinese state-affiliated think tanks, including some calls to abandon its recalcitrant ally, has actually been ongoing for several years. Beijing’s public comments largely retain its value-neutral call on both Koreas to show restraint, despite only North Korea being an aggressor. China’s main policy objective continues to advocate a return to the Six-Party Talks, despite Pyongyang’s repeated assertions that it will never under any circumstances abandon its nuclear weapons.
During his summit meeting, President Obama should emphasize that the real test of how much Beijing’s policy has actually changed is the degree to which it is willing to implement rather than obstruct international sanctions against North Korean violations and illegal activities. Obama should insist that Beijing step up pressure on Pyongyang when it defies the international community. Obama should also call on China not to abet forced repatriation of North Korean refugees who escape brutal conditions in their country in a quest to reach freedom. Last month, nine North Korean refugees—age 15 to 23—were captured in Laos and sent via China back into the horrors of North Korea.
North Korea has agreed to talks with Seoul regarding the future of the stalled joint North–South Korean Kaesong industrial complex. As part of a series of threats earlier this year, Pyongyang had removed its 53,000 workers and prevented South Korean workers from re-entering.
Prior to reopening the joint venture, Seoul should require North Korea to guarantee the safety of South Korean workers by restoring all communications links and formally affirming its commitment to all inter-Korean nonaggression agreements, the armistice ending the Korean War, and existing business contracts.