On Friday, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that the United States and China are planning on discussing North Korea’s nuclear program when senior leaders from both sides meet for their annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) next week. Yonhap based its report off comments made by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel during a recent press briefing ahead of the S&ED.
Russel implicitly referenced a joint U.S.-China opposition to North Korea’s “Byungjin Line”—the country’s policy of pursuing the parallel goals of economic development and a robust nuclear weapons program. Russel referred to that policy as a “fantasy,” noting that Pyongyang couldn’t “have its cake and eat it too.” Yonhap, thus, chose to call this out in its headline: “U.S., China to discuss ways to get N. Korea out of ‘fantasy’ of ‘byeongjin’ policy.” Russel notes that the United States and China will:
…accelerate the realization on the part of North Korea’s leadership that negotiations to end their nuclear program are the only path available to them that allows for economic growth. And that’s what we will discuss [at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue].
Russel’s remarks aren’t the first time U.S. officials have taken direct aim at North Korea’s Byungjin line, which was itself adopted during a plenary session of the Party Central Committee in Pyongyang in early 2013. In February 2015, U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi (who will be traveling, along with Vice Premier Wang Yang, to Washington for the S&ED next week) “agreed that North Korea would not succeed in its twin pursuit of nuclear weapons and economic development.”
Interestingly, at the time, Chinese press reports outlining the Yang-Rice meeting did not highlight that feature of their meetings. In fact, while the United States’ statement was the clearest indication of a U.S.-China agenda on countering North Korea’s Byungjin policy, China has been reluctant to publicly mention the policy. China continues to stress denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and encourages a return to multilateral diplomacy within the framework of the long-stalled Six-Party Talks.
Last month, U.S. Secretary John Kerry referenced the Byungjin line when speaking on the North Korean issue before a press conference in Seoul. He noted, describing a recent meeting between him and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, that the United States and China had “agreed that a mix of negotiations and pressure are needed to address this challenge, and North Korea needs to live up to its international obligations and commitments.” He added that “it is obvious that North Korea needs to recognize that it will not succeed in developing its economy or breaking out of diplomatic isolation if it continues to reject denuclearization”—a clear reference to the Byungjin line.
We still haven’t seen anything concrete from China regarding its position on North Korea’s Byungjin line. Meanwhile, it is clear that Washington has embraced the issue, even in the context of describing bilateral U.S.-China coordination on the North Korean issue. China could begin to shed its unease regarding publicly mentioning North Korea’s Byungjin line though Beijing has a separate set of considerations from Washington.
For example, while relations between China and North Korea have broadly suffered since Kim Jong-un’s ascension to power—and particularly since the December 2013 demise of Jang Song-thaek, a key interlocutor between the two neighbors and an architect of the Byungjin line—China isn’t out to pull the economic rug out from under the North Korean leadership. Doing so could invite instability along the North Korea-China border, something Beijing is keen to avoid.
The North Korean issue is an area of opportunity for the United States and China. As senior officials meet next week for the S&ED, it’ll be imperative that they clarify the extent to which they agree that North Korea’s Byungjin line must go. Both sides continue to share their differences over the necessary preconditions for a return to diplomatic talks (China wants talks now, the United States wants talks after a North Korean show of good will). They need to clarify if these differences persist in how they regard Pyongyang’s bid to pursue “guns and butter” in tandem. To this end, it’ll largely be up to China to set the record straight. The United States has been clear on the matter for a few months now.