GUEST CONTRIBUTOR LEE HONG-KOO WRITES – Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to North Korea is cleverly timed. World leaders attending the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Osaka, Japan, a week after the visit, will be eager to discover whether China will have a forward-looking stance on the North Korean nuclear issue.
Over the past three decades, the North Korean nuclear issue has constantly been on the boil. During this long period of time, China seemed to take a clear position on the issue. Yet it is also true that there has been a high-level of vagueness that I find difficult to understand. The G-20 meeting in Osaka will offer a chance to hear China’s take on the tricky issue after Xi’s trip to Pyongyang.
For over 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, East Asia enjoyed relative peace and prosperity. What made it possible was East Asian countries — from Japan to Southeast Asian nations, and even Australia in the Southern Hemisphere — acknowledging and accepting China as the only nuclear-armed country in the region.
Yet North Korea left the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1993 and pursued nuclear weapons development with the goal of becoming the second nuclear state after China. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and inarguably a superpower, China condones neighboring North Korea’s nuclear armaments, not because of a lack of its abilities to check its ally, but because it has been delaying a firm policy decision on the issue due to international dynamics and geopolitical considerations.
As a result, it is likely that China considers North Korea an exception to the NPT. If so, China will be faced with the logical — albeit inconvenient and awkward — question of whether it is open to the possibility that South Korea and Japan, over which North Korean missiles flew twice, can also be considered exceptions.
Meanwhile, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has firmly expressed a will for denuclearization at his summits with South Korea and the United States. At this juncture, Kim must have wanted to hear China’s clear and transparent position on the nuclear issue more than anyone else. President Moon Jae-in, U.S. President Donald Trump, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, other G-20 leaders and many others are expecting a transparent and constructive explanation from Xi on China’s Korean Peninsula policy and maintaining the NPT system.
Having declared its determination to denuclearize, the first step for North Korea would be to return to the NPT system, and China is in a position to actively support this as a permanent member of the Security Council. If bold progress in denuclearization can begin, the UN can also consider a phased lifting of sanctions on North Korea. If Trump and Xi can jointly lead the North’s denuclearization, they can find some clues for compromise and resolution of the U.S.-China trade dispute and tariff war threatening the global economy.
It is noteworthy that Xi’s visit to North Korea is timed a few days before the 69th anniversary of the 1950-53 Korean War. The war took place only five years after the end of World War II – and it was the beginning of the Cold War led by the Soviet Union and the United States. As some view U.S.-China relations as a second Cold War, I am wary of the confrontational structure over the Korean Peninsula in the nuclear arms era being neglected. As more than 70 years have passed since then, it is natural that we discuss a declaration of ending the Korean War and the possibility of a peace treaty. At the same time, there should be a clear understanding of how the war broke out. There is no need to discuss who’s responsible for the war now. But there should be deep reflection on how an irresponsible military attack leads to great sacrifice.
When the Korean War broke out, U.S. forces were not stationed on the Korean Peninsula. As the three-year war expanded to an all-out war, it became a historic turning point for the United States to transcend the tradition of being an Atlantic country and participate in Asian politics as a Pacific nation. That led to the establishment of U.S. defense treaties with Korea and Japan following the collective security principle of the UN Charter. Kim Jong-un constantly raises the obvious question of who will guarantee North Korea’s security — and how — after denuclearization. This is why there should be thorough study and — a strong determination — on how to apply the UN Charter’s collective security principle to North Korea after denuclearization. Is it my excessive optimism to expect this to be discussed during Xi’s trip to North
Lee Hong-koo, a former prime minister of the Republic of Korea, is chairman of the board of the Yumin Cultural Foundation.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.