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The US and China: Navigating a Nuclear North Korea

In the post-Cold War era, managing North Korea’s nuclear program is an urgent and persistent concern for the United States and the international community. However, its management risks exacerbating tensions between the US and China, as China harbours resentment towards US power on the Korean peninsula.

A report published by the Korean Herald on 29 June suggests that US Special Representative for North Korea policy, Sung Kim, will meet with his South Korean counterpart on Monday for talks on North Korea and its nuclear weapons program. This comes just weeks after the US called on North Korea to refrain from taking actions that inflamed tensions in the region, following state media reports that Pyongyang test-fired a newly developed ballistic missile from a submarine. This act reinforced North Korea’s willingness to violate multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions. At this time, the United States and North Korea remain in diplomatic deadlock and are far from concluding successful denuclearisation talks.

In this tense political climate, it is important to reflect on the US-China approach towards normalising relations with North Korea, particularly the progress made under the Bush Administration.

During the George W Bush era, the North Korean nuclear challenge was a point where the United States and China didn’t always see eye to eye. The issue of North Korea’s nuclear program was particularly difficult, as they were dealing with a dangerous, reclusive and unpredictable regime led by King Jong Il, while also mitigating their own differences. While the US and China shared strategic interests in preventing the development of nuclear weapons, their negotiations exposed disagreements based on ideological differences about the preferred process to contain North Korea as well as the degree to which each side could trust one another. The dichotomous way in which they competed against one another in the early part of Bush’s first-term, and how they later cooperated on the issue through Six-Party talks in his second-term, reaffirms how important, but also how complicated, their relationship is in the world.

Bush approached his first term as president believing that China was a “hostile competitor”1, a fraught approach when dealing with a volatile North Korea. China approached North Korea with concern for its own strategic interests, a strategy straining its relationship with the United States. China sought to cooperate in areas of strategic common concern, such as in North Korea, without undermining long-term geopolitical interests, such as its commitment to Taiwan.

In an attempt to devise a peaceful resolution to the nuclear weapons crisis, Bush’s approach shifted in his second term from a hardline approach to one more open to cooperation with China. This opened doors for Six-Party talks, including Russia, Japan, China, US, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). The US came to realise the importance of pragmatism when engaging China as well as the efficacy of deploying multilateral frameworks. Even though the Six-Party talks have stalled in recent years, one could argue that the closest the world has come to an agreement on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program resulted from the initial phases of the Six-Party talks during the Bush Administration.

Of equal importance is how the North Korean nuclear issues fostered stronger dialogue between the US and China. Richard N Haass, Director of Policy Planning Staff during the first Bush Administration, affirmed this in his remarks to the National Committee on US-China Relations. His comments remain as prescient as ever. “Today”, he claimed, “we are fashioning a different kind of US-China relationship – moving from an anti-Soviet dependence forced in the crucible of the Cold War to a modern partnership appropriate to the challenges of a global age”.

Many components of the US-China partnership were moulded out of the dialogue generated from the North Korean nuclear crisis. Shortly after the Cold War, the US and China often pretended that they operated independent of one another in the international arena. But as the 20th century came to a close, and the 21st century began, it became clear that they could not operate within geographical and political silos; no matter how uncomfortable it was, the two states were dependent on one another.

Indeed, trust built between countries in times of crisis, such as with nuclear weapons in North Korea, is instrumental in stabilising the global order because it creates a buy-in for increased dialogue. The slow transformation of the US and China from hostile actors to cooperative partners – working alongside four other nations to help resolve the crisis – was undeniably stabilising for the global order. While there will always be ideological, structural, and political differences between the US and China, their tacit acknowledgement of their interdependence shapes our current geo-political landscape. How they choose to utilise this dependence will dictate components of the international system in the 21st century.

Of all the issues in the region today, from maritime disputes in the South China Sea to China’s diplomatic push in central Asia, the North Korean nuclear threat has remained one of the most destabilising, the most pressing, and the most likely to cause real conflict. The US and China need to make coming to a diplomatic consensus on the North Korean issue their top priority.

Georgina Harrowell is the Sydney Branch Director at Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image Credit: (stephan) - Pyongyang, Arirang (Mass Games) (Flickr: Creative Commons)


1 Jean A Garrison (2005), Making China Policy from Nixon to G.W. Bush, Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc: London, p.166

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