Secretary of State John Kerry’s first visit to Northeast Asia last April was consumed with near-term crisis management since it coincided with the peak of regional tensions driven by North Korea’s provocative rhetoric. In contrast, his second visit to the region last week occurred against the backdrop of apparent easing of inter-Korean tensions and afforded a better environment for long-term coordination toward North Korea. Unfortunately, the visit appears to have illuminated the dead ends the administration faces on denuclearization of North Korea rather than showing a way forward. Washington has placed its bet on pressure from Beijing as the best hope for turning Pyongyang back to denuclearization, but Kerry’s conversations in Bejing raise questions about whether this route can really succeed.
Kerry’s press conference in Beijing was full of assurances, taking cues from the Sunnylands summit last June that cooperation on North Korea might be the showpiece for the establishment of a “new type of great power relationship.” According to Kerry, China remains fully committed to working with the United States to achieve the goal of a denuclearized North Korea. But Wang Yi’s unavailability for the Beijing press conference and Kerry’s public urging of the Chinese to use “all of the means of persuasion that they have” has sent the signal that in practice, China and the United States have not yet found a way forward. The dispatch of a vice minister to Pyongyang following Kerry’s departure with the message that China will “never allow chaos or war” suggests a lack of imagination for anything other than a continuation of an unsatisfying and dangerous status quo.
Meanwhile, the reports continue to roll out that Pyongyang is steadily advancing its nuclear and missile programs. The website 38North has analyzed evidence of North Korea’s expansion of its satellite launch facility and possible preparations for an eventual fourth nuclear test, but Kerry’s conversations revealed that these North Korean actions have still not galvanized sufficient unity of purpose among North Korea’s neighbors to bring Pyongyang back to the path of denuclearization. Many in Washington are skeptical that Beijing is willing and able use its leverage to bring North Korea back to denuclearization negotiations. Unless Bejing finds the formula for drawing North Korea into “authentic” denuclearization soon, it will be reasonable to conclude that the road to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula does not run through Beijing.
Prior to arriving in Beijing, Kerry’s conversations in Seoul occurred against the backdrop of a potentially significant change in tone in inter-Korean relations marked primarily by North Korea’s apparent willingness to forgo slander against the South and hold family reunions on February 20 through 25 regardless of U.S.-ROK annual military exercises, for which the North usually reserves its most apoplectic rhetoric. The resumption of family reunions, if successfully realized, would provide momentum toward improved inter-Korean relations despite North Korea’s insistence that the road to denuclearization will not run through Seoul. But if reconciliation is not pursued in tandem with denuclearization, this will be a source of new tension in U.S.-ROK relations.
Moreover, Kerry’s remarks to the press highlighted that “trilateral cooperation among Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul remains essential” as part of a strategy for inducing North Korea’s denuclearization. The poor relationship between South Korea and Japan constitutes a drag on the Obama administration’s efforts to mobilize a united front in favor of North Korea’s complete denuclearization. (Reports that Japan and South Korea are renewing diplomatic contacts following Kerry’s visit are welcome.) Certainly, North Korea’s charm offensive eases pressure from Seoul, all the more so if North Korea has indeed established a secret dialogue channel with Japanese counterparts in Hanoi or elsewhere.
Some participants in Six Party Talks may be envious that a parallel six-party (P5+1) process with Iran has shown modest progress, raising the possibility that the road to renewed six party talks might run through Tehran. But former Obama administration official Gary Samore, a veteran of the Geneva Agreed Framework with North Korea, sees no possibility that either the administration or North Korea might be enticed into betting on a Joint Action Plan for North Korea. Some suggest that the application of Iran-style sanctions to North Korea is the main takeaway from Iranian negotiations that might be applied to North Korea, but China is unlikely to apply this lesson from negotiations with Tehran.
Nor is there a direct road from Washington to Pyongyang, at least not so long as North Korea continues to hold Kenneth Bae as a de facto hostage, providing on-again, off-again offers for his release in return for high-level attention from Washington. President Obama delivered his last direct public message to North Korea over a year ago in Yangon when he posed to North Korea a choice: “let go of your nuclear weapons and choose the path of peace and progress. If you do, you will find an extended hand from the United States of America.” That message, by all appearances, has been rejected in Pyongyang. Given the stakes, President Obama should use his April trip to Asia to construct new pathways to ensure that Pyongyang gives “yes” for an answer.