Hiding and Biding No Longer: How China Could Emerge the Big Winner of Korean Peninsula Diplomacy


“Western strategists test their maxims by victories in battle; Sun Tzu tests by victories where battles have become unnecessary.”
–Henry Kissinger

The April 27 Panmunjom Declaration, signed by the leaders of South and North Korea, offered a road map toward a Korean peninsula “peace regime” as well as denuclearization negotiations between the United States and North Korea. The Trump-Kim summit has run into the ditch, however, struggling to survive incompatible definitions of denuclearization by Washington and Pyongyang. U.S. policy calls for unconditional “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement (CVID)” of Pyongyang’s entire nuclear weapons program and arsenal. North Korea counters with “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” which historically implies dismantlement of its own weapons program conditional on U.S. security guarantees, abrogation of U.S. extended deterrence for South Korea, reduction and withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula, and an end to the U.S.-South Korea military alliance.

Even if diplomacy does get back on track following the emergency Moon-Kim meeting on May 26 and Kim Yong Chol’s U.S. visit, negotiation failure is the most likely outcome. But many underestimate the likelihood of an alternate result: a compromise in which North Korea retains a small (verifiably limited and capped) nuclear arsenal with non-intercontinental-range ballistic missiles in exchange for some combination of nuclear weapon production capacity dismantlement, a production halt on long-range missiles, nonproliferation promises, the aforementioned peace regime (including a formal Korean peninsula peace treaty and South-North reconciliation), diplomatic normalization, and economic measures such as sanctions reduction, aid packages, and international investment.

Such a deal, which falls short of Washington’s current demands for complete denuclearization, would be admirably realistic. The United States has limited leverage to accomplish that larger goal, and compromising removes a threat to the U.S. homeland. But make no mistake, the big winner in such a scenario would be China. In this article, I briefly cover why such a compromise deal could emerge, and how it leads to a strategic victory for China.

Terra Incognita: The Real Possibility of a Compromise

A New York Times article has broached the possibility of Trump signing a deal permitting Pyongyang to keep some nuclear weapons. Recent statements by both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the newly tapped U.S. Ambassador to South Korea also claim that America’s primary objective is protecting the homeland from North Korea’s nuclear weapons, which would in theory allow the regime to retain nuclear-armed short-range and medium-range missiles. My private discussions with officials in Seoul and Washington also indicate that this is a possibility. Trump’s apparent brinksmanship in postponing the summit similarly indicates the administration has grasped that CVID is a fool’s errand, and, as Richard Haass put it, summit success is contingent on “US willingness to accept an outcome short of total denuclearization.”

North Korea would very likely accept such a compromise deal. The current progressive administration in South Korea would also likely accept it, as President Moon Jae In privileges Korean peace, inter-Korean economic cooperation, momentum toward a South-North confederation, and eventual unification over complete North Korean nuclear disarmament. Avowed U.S. policy notwithstanding, Trump could also accept this deal. A foreign policy “win” would be enticing for a president facing political scandals, legal jeopardy, and upcoming midterm election losses. The outlined compromise deal also comports with Trump’s peculiar combination of “America First” homeland defense obsession, antipathy toward alliances, and short-term thinking. Trump probably figures he could sell such a compromise as a victory for U.S. national security, since Pyongyang’s relinquishment of intercontinental and intermediate-range ballistic missiles would remove a direct threat to U.S. territory.

There is some truth to this sales pitch. Doing nothing is no longer an option, and a compromise deal is perhaps the best of a set of a bad options: CVID is widely regarded as unrealistic; war would be catastrophic; a limited strike is unlikely to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program; and a return to 2017-style “maximum pressure” is off the table for China and South Korea. A telltale sign that Trump’s administration has recognized this is the fact that National Security Advisor John Bolton, an über-hawk opposed to negotiations with Pyongyang and whose comments helped derail initial summit planning, now has a drastically reduced role in efforts to salvage the June 12 Singapore meeting.

A Good Deal for China

Despite Beijing’s concern about its relative exclusion in the early stages of summit planning among the two Koreas and the United States, China would emerge the biggest winner of the compromise deal outlined above. From Beijing’s perspective, the Korean peninsula is part of the larger Sino-U.S. competition over Asia-Pacific predominance, and getting America’s 28,500 troops off the peninsula is among China’s most desired strategic outcomes for any re-ordering of Northeast Asian geopolitical architecture. A deal that establishes a peace regime and allows North Korea to retain short- and medium-range nuclear-armed missiles is tailor-made to set up that outcome.

The reason this result would be such a victory for China is because of the impact it would have on U.S.-led alliances in Northeast Asia (and the Asia-Pacific more generally). China correctly views America’s alliances as a bulwark against its ambitions to achieve regional predominance, and the compromise deal outlined above plants a seed to unravel those alliances. A compromise “North-Korean-nukes-for-Korean-peace” deal would, over time, weaken the justification for U.S. troops on the peninsula (which have historically been devoted to deterring North Korean aggression against South Korea and the United States), to say nothing of the fact that North Korea and China would call for troop reductions as part of the deal itself. Pushing China’s main strategic competitor off the East Asian landmass while South Korea remained in range of theater-range nuclear-armed missiles would mark the beginning of the end of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, thus bringing the Korean peninsula more fully into China’s sphere of influence. We would also likely see rupture and/or decoupling of the U.S.-Japan alliance as America’s diminished role in Northeast Asia undermined the credibility of extended deterrence, particularly considering North Korea’s theater-range nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Finally, this decoupling would erode U.S. leadership in the rest of the Asia-Pacific, where allies and partners such as Australia, Taiwan, and Vietnam would view the United States as unreliable. This would gradually create a leadership vacuum that China would occupy, enhancing its leverage over its Asia-Pacific trade partners and its security vis-à-vis the United States.

Here There Be Dragons

For now, the cards are turning up in Beijing’s favor. Following the summit, Moon’s special advisor for foreign and security policy, Moon Chung In, floated the idea that U.S. troops should draw down and eventually exit the peninsula after a peace treaty. Moreover, it is an open secret that Moon’s administration has numerous Korean “progressive nationalists” who steadfastly believe the United States, and especially its troop presence on the peninsula, has prevented Korean unification. In this context, it is noteworthy that the full title of the Panmunjom Declaration is the “April 27 Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity, and Unification of the Korean Peninsula” (emphasis added).

As if on cue, several days after the Panmunjom summit, Trump reportedly ordered the Pentagon to draft plans for drawing down and withdrawing U.S. soldiers from the Korean peninsula. Bolton denied the report, but was undermined by Trump’s own comments claiming that troop withdrawal is “not on the table for the moment” (emphasis added), and that he would like to “save the money” in the future.

For Trump, troop withdrawal may not be a bug, but a feature. He has repeatedly denigrated U.S. alliances across the globe, and the alliance with South Korea has come under special attack. Trump has publicly and repeatedly invoked the idea of withdrawing U.S. troops, going back to at least March 2016. Even Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has mentioned it, telling a journalist, “that’s part of the issues we’ll be discussing in the negotiations with our allies first and, of course, with North Korea.” Any drawdown would be phased, not rapid, such that South Korea would have time, in the short to medium term, to further develop its own conventional deterrence capabilities. In the longer term, South Korean progressive nationalists would be happy to see U.S. troops removed from the peninsula as part of a peace process leading to a more amicable inter-Korean relationship and eventual confederation or unification.

Contrary to Washington’s logorrhea, Pyongyang has been subtly opaque on its position regarding U.S. troops (and the U.S.-South Korea alliance generally) as they relate to the diplomatic process. On the one hand, according to South Korea’s president, Pyongyang informed Seoul that it will not insist on troop withdrawal. On the other hand, there are serious suspicions that Moon is presenting Kim’s statements with undue positive spin. Indeed, the two Koreas announced in early 2018 that North Korea would not demand delay, curtailment, or cancellation of U.S.-South Korea military exercises, only for it to renege on that promise during the Max Thunder joint exercises. This suggests that North Korea is taking a harder line against the U.S.-South Korea alliance than it has sometimes professed. Ultimately, there is no evidence that North Korea’s fundamental condition for denuclearization has changed from previous negotiation rounds in which the sine qua non has been “an end to the hostile policy of the US,” U.S. troop reduction/withdrawal, alliance dissolution, and the end of extended deterrence.

This should please Beijing, which has reinserted itself into Korean peninsula diplomacy following the “Olympic détente.” Xi successfully invited Kim to Beijing in March, and to Dalian in May; Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi met with Kim following the Moon-Kim summit; Xi is expected to visit Kim in Pyongyang following the presumed Trump-Kim summit. Beijing explicitly asserts that it will “play a role” in the diplomatic process. It is no secret that following the March meeting between Xi and Kim, North Korea requested language in the Panmunjom Declaration allowing China to become a part of Korean peninsula talks. China’s gradual reinsertion into the process in March and April is further indicated by Kim’s statements claiming North Korea will abide by moratoria on nuclear and long-range missile testing, and his offer to verifiably demolish the Punggye-ri nuclear testing complex. Consistent with China’s interests, both measures further North Korean denuclearization in a limited fashion while protecting core nuclear weapons capabilities and programs. The logic of a testing moratorium is convoluted, but analysts believe Xi pressed Kim for this so that Pyongyang could demonstrate intent at limited (non-CVID) denuclearization while getting credit for taking steps to lower tensions. The Punggye-ri demolition removes a dangerous facility near China’s border and allows its ally to gain cheap diplomatic points by removing a superfluous nuclear site as a symbolic gesture.

Trump has told reporters that Xi insisted to Kim during their May meeting that he stiffen his bargaining approach. This was in fact a proximate cause of Trump’s decision to halt the summit. It’s not surprising that China pressures North Korea to structure negotiations such that they advance the two countries’ aligned interests. Chief among these is the weakening of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, including U.S. troop reductions or withdrawal. Indeed, reports indicate that China pressured North Korea in Dalian to push back against the Max Thunder exercises as a way of underlining that the U.S.-South Korea alliance must be on the negotiating table.

A minimally nuclear-armed North Korea without intercontinental and intermediate-range ballistic missiles can achieve the regime’s long-term strategy for survival — decoupling the U.S.-South Korea alliance and salami-slicing its way to a favorable pathway to unification. And theater-range capability is perhaps the most Kim can retain, given sanctions. For its part, China does not like North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but it has always subordinated full denuclearization to avoiding conflict or instability on the Korean peninsula and preventing a unified Korea allied with the United States. It is not above using North Korea’s nuclear program as leverage for accomplishing other aims. A minimally nuclear-armed North Korea makes a virtue of necessity for China, as Pyongyang would be doing Beijing’s work for it: maneuvering the United States off the Korean peninsula through decoupling, whilst fomenting South Korea’s slow alliance rupture with the United States. Politically, the consequence would be to telegraph to Japan and other U.S. partners that Washington is unreliable. Geostrategically, China would achieve a significant step toward a key goal — getting the United States out of the first island chain.

Fortuna Audaces Iuvat?

The above scenario raises some questions. Are China’s plans to leverage a minimally nuclear-armed North Korea — via “valuable practices of strategic communication,” as Xinhua states it — too clever by half? The United States, of course, may not ultimately withdraw from South Korea, and the fatal undermining of extended deterrence and general alliance credibility in the Asia-Pacific may never take place. After all, the United States, South Korea, and Japan would still have incentives to maintain and strengthen their alliance relationships to deter and contain North Korea and counter proliferation. But it’s worth noting that even under currently favorable conditions (namely, North Korea’s unifying threat and a China still not fully grown into its role as a regional power) South Korea and, to a lesser extent, Japan already face difficulties maintaining alliances with the United States. Issues such as domestic political support, burden-sharing, THAAD deployment (in South Korea), Chinese regional economic pressure, and increasing trade nationalism all already pose substantive risks to the alliances.

What of North Korea? There is no guarantee that it will retain its traditional goal of decoupling the United States from South Korea. Pyongyang’s leaders detest China, resent its preponderant influence, and distrust Chinese leaders. Washington has experienced dozens of broken North Korean promises; might Beijing get the same treatment?

These questions pose real risks, but Beijing can afford to run them. Deng Xiaoping urged a reforming China to “hide its strength and bide its time.” Those days are over — Beijing’s power is obvious, and its time is now. Korean peninsula diplomacy allows a wary and opportunistic China a chance to make decisive strategic gains in Northeast Asia and beyond without firing a shot. What better way to continue the path toward global power status and Asia-Pacific regional predominance promised at the 2017 Party Congress?

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to China’s 2017 Party Congress as the 2019 Party Congress.

Mason Richey is associate professor of international politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (Seoul, South Korea). His current research analyzes Asia-Pacific security dynamics and U.S. and European foreign and security policy in East Asia. His recent writings have appeared in Global Governance, Foreign Policy Analysis, Asian Security, the Asia Europe Journal, Le Monde, Forbes, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, andInternational Politics and Society.

Image: Xinhua