North Korea looms as next big test for China-US relations

Laura Zhou
·6-min read

China and the US might play the North Korea card against each other, but Pyongyang might also use the same tactic to advance its nuclear weapons programme, observers say.

US President Joe Biden did not mention North Korea in his first foreign policy address on February 4, but on Tuesday State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US remained “committed to denuclearisation of North Korea”. He added that Washington was working on a policy review and was “in close consultation and coordination” with its allies and partners.

While Biden called North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “a thug” during his campaign – a barb he also used to describe Chinese leader Xi Jinping – observers said the new US president was likely to take a more traditional and pragmatic diplomatic approach than his predecessor.

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Donald Trump’s unconventional style led to three unprecedented meetings with Kim, who ignored the former president’s demand for complete denuclearisation and last month announced a list of development plans for hi-tech nuclear weapons systems to deal with what he called intensifying American hostility.

North Korea developed nuclear, missile programmes in 2020, UN report says

Unlike Trump, Biden and his diplomatic aides understand North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons in the near future, according to Zhao Tong, a senior fellow with the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing.

“The Biden administration appears to be more willing to consider a flexible approach to North Korea’s top concerns about economic sanctions if the North is willing to impose some restrictions on its nuclear programme, so this makes a phased agreement between the US and North Korea more likely,” he said.

“That will be in line with what China has called for, which would offer new possibilities for pragmatic cooperation between China and the US over the North Korea issue.”

Biden administration plans ‘full review’ of North Korea approach

Senior diplomats in China have called for cooperation with the US on North Korea nuclear talks, but Zhao said there were concerns over whether the bitter confrontation between Beijing and Washington may get in the way of this.

Jessica Lee, a senior research fellow with Washington-based think tank the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said China was taking a wait-and-see approach to gauge Biden’s strategy on North Korea.

“Beijing is waiting to see whether the Biden administration will pursue dialogue with North Korea with concessions in mind or demand concessions up front,” she said. “The harder task will be in finding a balance between pressure and incentives, and rejecting the narrative that talking to North Korea is a reward.”

North Korea ‘squandered’ chance to improve ties under Trump: envoy

In the latest Fudan International Strategy Report, Zheng Jiyong, director of the Centre for Korean Studies at Shanghai-based Fudan University, said the Biden administration may seek to limit China’s involvement on North Korean issues and in response, Beijing should adjust its strategy.

“The US perception of North Korea has shifted from an immediate threat to a card with the potential to counter China’s momentum, in the face of China becoming its number one competitor,” he said.

“It may take three to six months before [America’s North Korea] policy is in place, which means a strategic advance of China’s position and status on the Korean peninsula should be adjusted to the realities of the situation, so that it can make effective use of this momentum and win in the Korean peninsula.”

Zheng noted that China – as the only major economy to have recovered from the Covid-19 pandemic – could use its economic power and vaccine development to further advance its influence on the world’s most isolated nation. This could give Beijing an upper hand in its geopolitical competition with Washington, particularly as Biden was likely to have his hands full on domestic issues, he said.

North Korea may also be keen to move closer to China, its largest trading partner and closest ally, while nuclear talks with the US remained stalled, he added.

North Korea responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by sealing its borders, leading to a plunge in trade with China, a heavy blow to an economy choked off from overseas income by sanctions and already struggling to deal with the combined effects of typhoons, floods and famine over summer. Earlier last month, during the eighth congress of its ruling Workers’ Party, Kim admitted the previous five-year economic development plan “fell extremely short of its goals”.

In a sign of his desire for deeper relations with neighbouring China, Kim promoted Kim Sung-nam to a ministerial role, in recognition of his work as the party’s deputy minister for international affairs overseeing relations with Beijing. In contrast, Choe Son-hui, who oversees negotiations with the US, was demoted from her place on the party’s central committee to alternate member.

At the same time, Chinese President Xi was quick to send the North Korean leader a congratulatory message on his election as the party’s general secretary – a title previously held by his grandfather Kim Il-sung and father Kim Jong-il.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi also exchanged messages with his North Korean counterpart Ri Son-gwon late last month, when the two sides pledged to continue close communications.

According to Moon Chung-in, one of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s closest foreign policy advisers, Wang expressed support for Seoul’s strategy of an “incremental, phased approach based on simultaneous exchanges, action for action” during his visit to South Korea in November.

A first step would involve the verifiable dismantling of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility and the declaring of all the country’s hidden nuclear facilities, in return for a pursuit by the US of selective sanctions relief and other measures to ease Pyongyang’s fear of regime change, the adviser said.

Biden can offer Kim’s North Korea a denuclearisation deal he can’t refuse

However, he also expressed concern at the influence on the Biden administration of “mainstream thinking in Washington” and “hardliner” North Korea analysts like Jung Pak, Biden’s pick for deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

“Regime change through maximum pressure won’t work,” said Moon, referring to Jung’s hawkish stance on North Korean denuclearisation. “The only solution is a negotiated settlement through diplomacy.”

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