When the United States and China move closer to each other, leaders of the two Koreas are apt to start talking. An unanticipated side effect of Nixon’s rapprochement with China in the early 1970s was that both Kim Il-sung and Park Chung-hee established secret talks in response to a new strategic reality in which their respective patrons had established dialogue. Those talks led to a landmark inter-Korean joint declaration on July 4, 1972. Although the Obama-Xi Sunnylands summit was advertised as an introductory session not designed to produce deliverables, one indirect effect of the summit is that it has jumpstarted inter-Korean dialogue. The first working-level inter-Korean talks between the Park Geun-hye and Kim Jong-un leaderships is being held at Panmunjom nearly simultaneously with the Xi-Obama summit.
The positive effects of high-level Sino-U.S. dialogue on inter-Korean relations can be shortlived. A spike in inter-Korean tensions following North Korea’s shelling of a South Korean island in November 2010 drove North Korea up the agenda of U.S.-China relations as both countries prepared for Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington in January 2011. In anticipation of Hu’s White House visit, North and South Korea announced high-level talks between military officials, but by the time that meeting was held, momentum had shifted and inter-Korean military talks failed.
This time, the first step in relaxation of inter-Korean tensions accompanied Secretary Kerry’s first visit to Beijing as Secretary of State in mid-April. A series of high-level visits by U.S. officials including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Dempsey accompanied North Korea’s familiar tactical shift from brinkmanship to charm offensive in May. Following the announcement of the Xi-Obama summit later that month, North Korea’s top general Choe Ryong-hae delivered a letter to Xi from Kim Jong-un. However, Xi and his colleagues met Choe with a consistent and stern public message that “all the parties involved should stick to the objective of denuclearization, safeguard peace and stability on the peninsula, and resolve disputes through dialogue and consultation.” This rhetorical reordering of Chinese priorities placing denuclearization equivalent with stability was a clear message to North Korea. For his part, General Choe pledged North Korea’s commitment to renewed dialogue, but neglected to mention denuclearization.
Days in advance of the Obama-Xi summit, North Korea suddenly offered and South Korea rapidly accepted resumption of inter-Korean talks. Representatives of the two Koreas agreed in meetings at Panmunjom the day after the Sino-U.S. summit to hold “government talks” in Seoul on Wednesday and Thursday of this week to discuss resumption of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the future of the joint Mount Kumgang resort, and reunion events for families separated by the Korean War– all of which are projects that would benefit North Korea economically if they are resumed. South Korea resisted North Korean demands to hold non-governmental meetings to commemorate the anniversary of the June 15, 2000 and July 4, 1972 joint declarations.
Both Koreas have a strong incentive to advance inter-Korean talks prior to Park Geun-hye’s visit to Beijing scheduled for the end of June, where reports are that President Xi is prepared to roll out the red carpet for her. Having solidified the U.S.-ROK alliance during her early May visit to Washington, a step forward on Trustpolitik would help Park in relations with Beijing, while Pyongyang has a double economic and political incentive to cooperate with Seoul both to forestall greater Sino-ROK cooperation on North Korean denuclearization and to lessen growing economic dependency on Beijing.
In his readout to the press following the Obama-Xi summit, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon emphasized Sino-U.S. “alignment” on North Korea, including Chinese pledges to deepen “cooperation and dialogue to achieve denuclearization.” Donilon’s characterization of the outcome of the conversation was that both sides will “apply pressure both to halt North Korea’s ability to proliferate and to make clear that its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons is incompatible with its economic development goals.” By pushing for a U.S.-(ROK)-PRC alignment in opposition to a nuclear North Korea, the Obama administration is reaching a crunch point in its efforts to prove to North Korea’s leaders that Pyongyang’s nuclear development efforts are regime-endangering, and that the future of the North’s economic development—and regime survival—in fact turn on North Korea’s denuclearization.