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North Korean Leadership Tremors: Catalyst for U.S.-ROK-China Cooperation?

by Scott A. Snyder
December 19, 2013

park-and-xi-in-beijing-june2013 South Korean president Park Geun-hye and Chinese president Xi Jinping agreed to push for new talks with North Korea at their first meeting on June 27, 2013 in Beijing. Following recent news of internal political upheaval in Pyongyang, coordinating the direction of South Korea-China-U.S. cooperation is all the more important (Wang Zhao/Courtesy Reuters).


I participated last Friday morning in a perfectly timed, wide-ranging panel discussion hosted by The Korea Society and named in honor of Robert A. Scalapino, formerly Professor of Political Science at UC Berkeley. (Bob was an excellent mentor, gentleman, and scholar-diplomat, in addition to being the broadest and deepest scholar on Asian politics of his generation.)

The panel, moderated by The Korea Society’s Steve Noerper, included Ralph Cossa of the Pacific Forum CSIS, John Delury and Han Sukhee of Yonsei University, Sung-yoon Lee of the Fletcher School, Shen Dingli of Fudan University, and myself. We spent the morning discussing Jang Song-taek’s execution that had been announced only the day prior to our meeting, North Korea’s future, and the implications of North Korea’s leadership tremors for relations among the United States, China, and South Korea.

Among the many interesting points that illuminated the discussion, I was left with two main takeaways from the discussion. First, Ralph Cossa made the observation that U.S.-ROK-China trilateral cooperation has four sides, reminding the group that Japan is an essential player in all aspects of the regional security conversation in Northeast Asia. Second, the removal of Jang Song-taek from North Korea’s leadership picture may tilt China toward prioritizing stability over denuclearization in the near-term. However, it also may deprive China of strategic alternatives to cooperation with the United States and South Korea given the skyrocketing reputational costs of continued support for a reckless and brutal North Korean leadership whose actions are increasingly difficult to defend. And this, as Bob Scalapino might conclude, is cause for “cautious optimism” about future prospects for multilateral cooperation in Northeast Asia.

Video from various segments of our Korea Society conversation are available here:

North Korea’s Power Struggle?

China-Korea-U.S. Relations: Korea’s Navigating Space

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