Follow Beijing's Lead on Defusing the Volatile North Korea Crisis

North Korean leader Kim Jung Un guides the test fire of a tactical rocket in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang August 15, 2014.

Washington now may confront the last possible window of opportunity to arrest the further escalation of the Korean crisis.

The able skeptic and realist Ted Galen Carpenter has recently counseled that “if Russia wants the Syria mess, let them have it.” One would think that after three failed wars in the Middle East (Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya) that strategists in Washington would be wiser than to go looking for a fourth (or fifth) quagmire. Perhaps it’s time to let other global powers take a turn at trying to stabilize some of the many simmering crises roiling the global order? Maybe “America First” should partly mean that other significant actors play a larger, constructive role as “responsible stakeholders” in global security, easing the burden on the United States? After all, American infrastructure would not be in need of such an obvious overhaul if vast resources had not been squandered in the blood-soaked sands of the Middle East for so many years with no end in sight.

Of course, China is unlikely to have the capability, interest, or will to stabilize the Middle East anytime soon, but what about Beijing sorting out its own neighborhood at the very least? More than a few Asia hands have opined over the last two decades that the Korean Peninsula must form the critical test for Chinese regional leadership in the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, the heart of the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” strategy seemed to rely on the assumption that only China could really “solve” the North Korean nuclear issue and that Beijing would have to act eventually to reign in the dangerous behavior of its erstwhile and increasingly truculent client. The Trump administration’s policy has seemed even more naïve in its trust that China could handle the issue alone—not only in overestimating Beijing’s influence in Pyongyang, but also in believing that the United States itself could simply double down on its usual set of policies (e.g. more economic sanctions, more human-rights pressure and more bomber flights) without rethinking its own approach in the least. How’s that working out?

Washington now may confront the last possible window of opportunity to arrest the further escalation of the Korean Crisis. To do so will involve accepting Beijing’s proposal to halt the large, annual U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises in return for a freeze on North Korean nuclear and missile testing. Let us return to that and other common sense steps to deescalate current tensions at the conclusion of this essay. In the meantime, this Dragon Eye column seeks yet again to demystify Beijing’s approach to North Korea by discussing some relevant Chinese-language materials. The April 2017 issue of Chinese National Geographic (中国国家地理), a stellar magazine, carried an in-depth description of a heretofore unknown Chinese town called Hunchun (珲春).

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