Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | East Asia

Don’t Let Tension With China Ruin US-North Korea Diplomacy

Present tensions between Washington and Beijing shouldn’t be allowed to derail work toward peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

By Christopher Mott  for
Don’t Let Tension With China Ruin US-North Korea Diplomacy
Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
To say Sino-American relations have taken a precipitous dip since the onset of the coronavirus crisis would be an understatement. In commentary, the phrase “New Cold War” has become a cliché. Though geopolitical rivalry between large powers is to some degree an inevitability, the speed and uniformity with which this push is being made should be questioned.

Already it seems like this new confrontational attitude between China and the United States is sabotaging prior diplomatic outreaches to North Korea by making the two large powers look like agents of strife in the region. Considering the unfinished diplomatic business between the United States and North Korea, such a turn risks pushing Pyongyang back into its traditional alliances by default.

Regardless of what long-term policy Washington takes vis-à-vis China, however, one thing that should not change in U.S. foreign policy is the push to normalize relations with North Korea.

It is worth remembering that the Trump administration’s first attempt for some kind of lasting foreign policy legacy was more diplomatic engagement with the traditionally secluded government in Pyongyang. A global pandemic and ever-more difficult relations between Washington and Beijing should not distract from continuing and — if possible — expanding upon these ties. Indeed, it seems like since the COVID-19 crisis went truly global that talks between Pyongyang and Washington have withered.

Most recently, North Korea was in the news for a potential succession dispute fueled by faulty reporting from outside the country. What this almost-crisis showed is that in the case of an actual power struggle in Pyongyang, the United States and much of the world might be operating blind with a nuclear-capable and often hostile country. To have more connections inside the regime would have surely been a net positive during this recent kerfuffle. U.S. policymakers would have had more reliable sources as to what was going on in Pyongyang and would have been better prepared for any upsets within the structure of the government, which might have changed its approach toward future diplomacy.

There are long-term benefits to continue expanding relations with North Korea. Should U.S. relations with China continue deteriorating, it becomes more important to defuse tensions on the Korean peninsula. Due to geographic proximity, the Chinese would today hold a strong advantage in any crisis involving the North.

U.S. diplomacy to Pyongyang is not just about sparing that region from another destructive land conflict — though that would obviously be the most important benefit in a worst-case scenario — but would also be a milestone in recognizing how much geopolitics has changed since the (original) Cold War. North Korea should not be viewed as a vassal of Beijing and any willingness it has to negotiate with the United States should not be ignored.

The ideologically expansionist ethos that gave so much impetus to both sides’ actions in the post-World War II era simply no longer exists. There is no grand quest by great powers to either support or oppose states breaking away from the Japanese and European empires of old entering one kind of economic system’s camp or another.

The rivalry between the Koreas is more a tragic artifact of bygone times than part of a broader struggle. The government in Seoul took the lead in trying to regularly negotiate with Kim Jong Un, even back when the Trump administration was still in its saber-rattling phase. Generally, South Koreans trust the process of regularly engaging with Pyongyang even as support for maintaining close ties with the United States remains strong as well.

Remember: Pyongyang’s paranoia is not just targeted toward the United States. North Korea’s leaders must — on some level — view their reliance on China as a threat to their sovereignty and autonomy of action. Preserving a client state on the Korean peninsula is a long-held keystone of Chinese foreign policy dating back across numerous governmental changes and deep into pre-modern dynastic history. North Korea should not be assumed to want merely to acquiesce to this arrangement without being able to expand diplomatic options elsewhere.

A more constructive American diplomatic engagement that includes dropping or renegotiating sanctions in exchange for nuclear weapons inspections and a cessation of missile tests will most likely find a receptive audience in Pyongyang.

Moving toward normalized relations could give American policymakers more freedom of action in the region by allowing for a reduction in troops in South Korea — thus lowering costs and tensions on the peninsula. Should Washington’s relations with Beijing keep deteriorating, Pyongyang’s autonomy of action vis-à-vis China could be increased, keeping any Sino-American rivalry more toward the ocean and less on a Chinese land border. This plays more to Washington’s strengths in the region than Beijing’s — while reducing the chances of another conflict between the Koreas.

Alternatively, if cooler heads prevail, working on a joint peace plan for the Koreas could help bring the United States and China into a more constructive bilateral relationship by working on a joint project with mutual benefits.

Either way, the momentum to improve U.S.-North Korean relations should continue through and beyond the present global crisis.

Christopher Mott is an international relations specialist and author of The Formless Empire: A Short History of Diplomacy and Warfare in Central Asia.