The relatively smooth passage of Barack Obama’s first visit to east Asia from 12-19 November 2009 - where he landed in Japan, Singapore (for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit), China, and South Korea - reflected a notable aspect of the first year of this United States presidency: that it has been relatively free, concerns with China over trade and Japan over the location of military bases apart, of the kind of tensions with the region that marked the early periods of the Bill Clinton and George W Bush presidencies.
Yet the oddly muted welcome to Obama, and the mini-buffeting given to him by the media at home over his alleged kowtowing to the Chinese and an excessively low bow to Japan’s emperor, have tended to deflect attention from a vital and unresolved regional issue remains beyond a clear path to resolution: namely, policy towards North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [DPRK]).
The possession and test-firing of nuclear weapons by North Korea is a central part of this question, but - as indicated by the latest news of dangerous food insecurity and discontent over a substantial currency revaluation - it is far from being the only aspect. Moreover, the future of North Korea is an area where active cooperation between Beijing and Washington is as essential to progress as in the vital area of climate change.
The neighbour's game
The lack of an open discussion between the United States and the People’s Republic of China over what to do about North Korea is in this respect an exception to their wide-ranging exchanges over other questions of shared interest (among them climate change, financial matters, Iran and Afghanistan).
China has a somewhat ambiguous stock response when its attitude to towards the Pyongyang regime is raised: namely, that it has close historical and political ties to its neighbour yet at the same time limited influence over it. Thus even though it may complain about the “dear leader” Kim Jong- Il’s manipulative behaviour - and is evidently irritated by the DPRK’s constant desire to talk directly to the US - China can never break with its “little brother”. The visit of China’s defence minister Liang Guanglie to Pyongyang on 22 November 2009 - marked by familiar rhetoric of unbending solidarity - fits this pattern well.
True, China can justify its policy stance in broader strategic terms. In chairing the six-party talks over North Korea since 2003 (involving Russia, Japan, the and the United States as well as China and the two Koreas), Beijing has exercised some responsibility in trying to persuade the DPRK observe international norms. This made Pyongyang’s nuclear tests of 2006 and 2009 a particular rebuff to China’s patient diplomacy.
But China does have more influence in the DPRK than it cares to acknowledge. It is North Korea’s main aid donor (providing almost 50% of the total), is the source of 90% of the country’s energy resources, and - underlying tensions notwithstanding - has more access to and space to press its views on the elite in Pyongyang than any other country. In addition, China’s ability to face down the United States and European Union diplomatically when it feels certain of its ground is well attested; there is no reason in principle why it cannot use its resources to advance a diplomatic solution in its own “backyard”.
The partners' need
At the heart of the problem is North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. China and the United States both see a nuclear (or gradually nuclearising) North Korea as inherently destabilising, not least because it serves as an excuse for other countries in northeast Asia to justify their own arms-building. In formal terms, the denuclearisation of North Korea and stability in northeast Asia represents a shared agenda between Beijing and Washington, leading both to press the DPRK to engage in positive negotiations within the six-party framework. Washington’s special representative to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, makes a three-day visit to Pyongyang on 8 December 2009 to seek this outcome.
But China’s approach to North Korea and its future is also caught between contradictory interests and objectives. For however much the Beijing leadership would prefer a non-nuclear DPRK, it would also be deeply worried by the prospect of a disarmed North Korea - perhaps followed by a unified state on the peninsula, backed by the US, and committed to (and even promoting) democracy and human rights. Could the Chinese leadership accept, for example, a “peaceful” US military presence just across the Yalu river after Korean unification?
This internal dilemma helps explain the absence of progress on North Korea between Hu Jintao and Barack Obama in Beijing. Yet this is an area where President Obama could (and arguably needs to) earn his Nobel accolade. For a trustworthy partnership with China is the key to North Korea’s denuclearisation and disarmament. To achieve it, Obama needs a clear assessment of China’s willingness to persuade the “little brother” to abandon its military-first politics and develop the country economically and politically; and more broadly for the US and China to understand each other’s objectives over the DPRK as clearly as possible.
The region’s question
The reform of North Korea’s governmental system - and not “merely” its denuclearisation and guarantees of non-proliferation - is a major concern across the region: most immediately of all for South Korea. Thus a nuclear-free North Korea, however hard it will be to get there, is not the end of the story. Many other major problems will have to be addressed in managing the country’s transition to a more sustainable society, among them malnutrition, gender equality, an ingrained militarism and a potential mass exodus.
This in turn raises a crucial question for all the actors involved about the medium-term future: whether Koreans’ and the region’s best interests would be best served by two (peaceful, disarmed, cooperative) Korean states or by a single (unified and powerful) one. All the leadership skills of Barack Obama and Hu Jintao and their associates in particular will be called on to resolve it; as much as climate change, it’s a subject that requires frank dialogue, sustained commitment and clear objectives. If that was missing in the US president’s first tour of the region, it cannot be long postponed.