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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The Obama-Xi Summit

by | June 10th, 2013 | 07:00 am
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Following is a brief read-out from the three major American and Chinese press briefings on the summit: the remarks by the two presidents themselves and more detailed press briefings by Thomas Donilon and State Councilor Yang Jiechi (as reported in Xinhua).

It is clear that North Korea is being portrayed as an area of consensus: that the two leaders were united on getting North Korea to give up its weapons programs. If Kim Jong Un hoped that he would get some credit for his recent initiative vis-à-vis the South, he appears to have come up short; it received no mention whatsoever that we could see. At least in terms of declaratory policy, the emphasis was on the common objective, the need to uphold sanctions to achieve it, and the Chinese recognition of a key feature of “strategic patience”: that a resumption of the Six Party talks made no sense unless there were clear signs that they could be meaningful.

More generally, talks of this sort do not solve particular problems—the joint statement on climate change notwithstanding–and in fact served to underscore differences on certain issues, most notably cybersecurity. But tone is important, and the opportunity for the new Chinese administration to outline its approach is arguably more important than Obama’s given their respective tenures in office.

From the remarks by Presidents Obama and Xi following the meetings. (June 7)

This somewhat odd press opportunity permitted questions by one reporter from the Chinese and American sides to both presidents, the first on cybersecurity issues the second (from the Chinese reporter) asking for a more general read-out that permitted set-piece responses.  No explicit mention was made of North Korea by either leader; the tone was more general, even philosophical.

The interesting feature of Xi Jinping’s response was the modified version of the “peaceful rise” foreign policy line, which emphasizes standard liberal arguments: that globalization and the pursuit of economic well-being and opening and reform will require cooperation on the international stage. Emphasis throughout Xi’s response was on the variety of channels to be tapped, including a specific mention of deepened mil-mil relations that Obama also sought to underline. Xi made reference to constructing a “model of major country relationship [sic],” the apparent new characterization. But also lurking was the reference to “the Chinese dream of the great national renewal” and the uncertain shape that Chinese nationalism would take during the Xi years.

From the Thomas Donilon press briefing.

Donilon made it clear at the outset that the meetings should be seen in the context of the US rebalancing to Asia, now clearly the favored formulation over “pivot.” Although a changed relationship with China was a piece of the rebalance from the start, that piece sometimes got lost amidst the other actions the US felt it needed to take to counter a period of clumsy assertiveness in Chinese foreign policy over the last three years.  Donilon traced the process of getting to the summit, which included a sustained effort at high-level re-engagement through visits by Secretaries of Treasury and State Lew and Kerry and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Dempsey. (Chuck Hagel delivered the somewhat more forward, tough-cop messages at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore).

North Korea was portrayed as a win: an area where the two leaders sought to deliver a common message. Donilon’s read-out in full:

“The Presidents agreed last night that [North Korea] is a key area for U.S.-China enhanced cooperation. They agreed that North Korea has to denuclearize; that neither country will accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state; and that we would work together to deepen U.S.-China cooperation and dialogue to achieve denuclearization. The President also stressed to President Xi that the United States will take any steps that we need to take to defend ourselves and our allies from the threat of that North Korea presents.

The two sides stressed the importance of continuing to 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. The discussions on this issue I believe will allow us to continue to move ahead and work in a careful way in terms of our cooperation to work together to achieve our ends.

I think the bottom line is I think we had quite a bit of alignment on the Korean issue — North Korean issue, and absolute agreement that we would continue to work together on concrete steps in order to achieve the joint goals that the United States and China have with respect to the North Korean nuclear program.”

Unfortunately, reporters were preoccupied with the domestic information-gathering scandal and questions about the color of the meetings; the Annenberg estate, a redwood bench that was given as a gift to the Chinese president, the presence of the Chinese first lady and the absence of Michelle. But there was one further exchange:

“Q With regard to North Korea, did they discuss about the resuming Six-Party talks or about strengthening the sanctions against North Korea? And my second question is did they discuss about the repatriation of North Korean defectors [SH: the group we have called the Laos Nine]? Thank you very much.

MR. DONILON: Yes. With respect to North Korea, there was a discussion about the importance of enforcing the United Nations Security Council resolutions and increase — and continuing that pressure on North Korea so that the choice is very clear to North Korea. On the Six-Party talks, it was a discussion about the importance of any talks going forward being authentic and credible, that is, talks that would actually lead to a sensible result. And we really haven’t seen from the North Koreans at this point that kind of commitment on the substance of potential talks, I think, at this point to move forward.

And I didn’t — on the –

Q North Korea defectors.

MR. DONILON: That was not discussed.”

The complexity of the sanctions comments is worth underscoring. First, the Chinese noted both the strategic value of sanctions—getting North Korea back to the table—and the importance of curbing any proliferation risk. At the same time, the US underscored that the multilateral sanctions effort would be seen as a floor not a ceiling and that the US would continue to take actions—including military ones—to defend against possible risks. The message: North Korea is a strategic liability for China.

On the Laos Nine, we have no inside information. But our guess is that the administration concluded that the Chinese did not know enough about the transit of the refugees to be held accountable, and that in any case the issue was too small-bore for the larger ambitions of the summit; although our position on the refugees is clear, this is a reasonable judgment.

Xi-Obama Summit Opens New Chapter in Trans-Pacific Partnership

We were surprised at the bullishness of State Councilor Yang Jiechi’s comments, as filtered by Xinhua; this could be an honest assessment, domestic spin, or both. Yang spelled out the components of the new type of relationship as consisting of four components, and noted that cooperation on conflicts on the Korean peninsula, Afghanistan and a series of functional issues were opportunities.

  • “First of all, the two sides need to elevate the level of dialogue and mutual trust and institutionalize the meetings between leaders of the two nations at multilateral venues such as the Group of 20 and the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, while making good use of the existing over 90 dialogue and communication mechanisms between the two governments.
  • Secondly, to open a new horizon for pragmatic cooperation, Washington should take active steps to relax restrictions on hi-tech exports to China and improve the bilateral trade and investment structures toward a more balanced future.
  • Thirdly, to create a new mode of interaction between major countries, the two sides need to maintain close coordination and collaboration on the Korean Peninsula, Afghanistan and other global hotspot issues, and work more closely on issues such as crackdown on piracy and transnational crimes, peacekeeping tasks, disaster relief, cyber security, climate change and space security.
  • Last, the two sides need to find a new way to manage their difference and actively foster a new type of military relations in accordance with the new type of inter-power ties.”

We were struck by the fact that amidst the general call for cooperation, a major Chinese ask at the meetings was for a lifting of US export restrictions.

Yang’s comments on the Korean peninsula tended toward the generic and did not make the same pointed references that Donilon’s did on the agreed need for sustained pressure:

“During his talks with Obama, Xi reaffirmed China’s persistence in keeping peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in realizing denuclearization there.

China adheres to the principle that the issue be solved through dialogue and consultation and it will continue to make unremitting efforts toward a solution, Xi said.

The respective stance and overall objective by China and the United States in this regard are in accord, the Chinese president said, adding that China is willing to maintain close communication and cooperation with the U.S. side over the issue.”

A cynical reading might point to the fact that the Chinese leader did not himself restate the significance of a two-track policy of pressure and holding forth the promise of improved relations. But there is no reason to over-read this: the clear statement that China and the US were in agreement on the issue was arguably all that was needed, and Beijing clearly delivered its message in no uncertain terms during the Choe visit. The current stance does put a certain burden of proof on China; can Xi deliver on a return to talks—acknowledging the US position on them—or not?

No one meeting will solve all of the problems between the two countries. But Yang concluded that “the Xi-Obama summit is of strategic, constructive and historic significance and will have a positive impact on the future development of China-U.S. ties and on the peace, stability and prosperity in the region and across the world as well.” Given the knotty—even intractable–problems facing the two countries, a little Norman Vincent Peale is not a bad thing.