Why outsourcing the N. Korean crisis to China failed under W. Bush and will fail today as well

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Parris H. Chang

By many press accounts, how to cope with Pyongyang’s nuclear threat was the most urgent issue for discussion at the U.S.-China summit in Palm Beach, Florida on April 6-7.

President George W. Bush and Mrs. Laura Bush with Chinese President Jiang Zemin and his wife Wang Yeping in Crawford, Texas, Oct. 25, 2002.

President Donald Trump has rejected his predecessor’s “strategic patience” concept and called for tighter sanctions against North Korea and a tougher approach that could include the use of force as well.

However, U.S. missile attacks on Syria’s air base on April 6th abruptly preempted and overshadowed most of the news reports on the Trump-Xi Jinping talks. Consequently, there were only scant reports concerning their deliberation on North Korea and other important issues. On the other hand, President Trump’s own Twitter was much more informative and revealing.

For example, he posted a message on April 11 “I explained to the president of China that a trade deal with the U.S. will be far better for them if they solve the North Korea problem.”

A follow-up post said, “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! USA.”

Was Trump disappointed because the Chinese leader was noncommittal regarding China’s position? According to U.S. officials who were privy to the talks at the summit, Xi did not offer Trump any public commitments during their dialogue, and even in private conversations, the Chinese leader was circumspect.

It is no secret that President Trump’s predecessors, Clinton, Bush and Obama believed China possess the economic leverage and political influence to force a change in the behavior of Pyongyang ‘s leadership.

Hence they were apt to “outsource” Pyongyang’s denuclearization to Beijing. President George W. Bush has vividly recounted, in his memoir “Decision Points,” his efforts to solicit China’s assistance.

In October 2002, Bush invited then Chinese leader Chairman Jiang Zemin to visit his Crawford ranch in Texas, and suggested to Jiang that the U.S. and China combine their influence to stop North Korea’s nuclear program. Jiang was respectful, according to Bush, “but he told me North Korea was my problem, not his.”

“Exercising influence over North Korea is very complicated,” Jiang added.

After further futile argument, Bush bluntly warned Jiang in February 2003 that “if we could not solve the problem diplomatically, I would have to consider a military strike against North Korea.” Was Bush bluffing?

Jiang felt he must take Bush’s warning seriously and could no longer dismiss it in a cavalier manner. After all, the U.S. troops moved into Iraq the following month. There were wide speculations in international media that North Korea, a member of the “Axis of Evils” like Iraq according to Bush, could be the next target of U.S. attack.

An apprehensive South Korea government even dispatched its foreign minister to Washington to argue against use of force in the Korean Peninsula.

It is in this context that Beijing decided to intervene forcefully. Its primary concern was to forestall U.S. military strikes against North Korea, which could result in uncontrollable and undesirable consequences — collapse of the Kim regime, the installation of a pro-Western government , and hundreds of thousand of refuges flowing across the Chinese border.

Hence Beijing developed a plan to convene and host a regional conference to peacefully solve North Korea’s nuclear arms program. When Pyongyang demurred initially, Beijing displayed its resolve and cut off oil supply to North Korea for a week and compelled Pyongyang’s participation at the conference.

Thus, under China’s aegis, the first meeting of the so-called ” Six-Party Talks “(attended by North and South Korea, the U.S., Japan, Russia and China) took place in August 2003 at Beijing. After dozens of private bilateral (the U.S. and North Korea), trilateral (the U.S., North Korea, and China) meetings and five rounds of plenary negotiations, the parties agreed to a General Agreement and issued a joint statement in September 2005.

In sum, North Korea agreed to a staged elimination of “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear program;” in return, the U.S., South Korea and Japan agreed to work toward normalized relations with Pyongyang and provided security assurances and economic assistance.

China and North Korea were big winners as they avoided a possible U.S. military attack, and China was lauded as a peace-maker in the international community.

But with the benefits of hindsight, the mechanism of “Six-Party Talk” was a deception and a delaying tactic used by Pyongyang, perhaps with Beijing’s complicity, to secure additional time for research and development of its nuclear and missile programs.

Thus, when the North Korean scientists were ready, Pyongyang found a lame excuse to tear up the General Agreement and launched a Taepodong 2 intercontinental ballistic missile test in July 2006 and detonated a nuclear device 3 months later.

Some U.S. officials may realize subsequently they had been hoodwinked, but were too embarrassed to say so. At least they have learned that endless talks with Pyongyang will get nowhere, except a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Would Xi Jinping be able to help solve “North Korea problem” in exchange for a better trade deal as Trump has proposed? A smart American businessman /dealer-maker like Trump cares about profits, but Communists like Xi, Jiang or Mao Zedong see national security as the foremost national priority, while business interests are expendable.

President Dwight Eisenhower’s duel with Chairman Mao, as recorded in his “Mandate for Change 1953-56”, could be instructive for Trump’s dealing with Xi.

When President Eisenhower came to office in January 1953, he dropped hints at the Korean Truce Talk in Panmunjom that in the event China refused to accede to an armistice in a reasonable time, the U.S. was prepared to escalate the war, including possible use of atomic weapons against military targets in China, or assisting a Nationalist invasion pf the Chinese mainland.

Mao took Eisenhower’s threats seriously and ordered preparations for an invasion by 7 U.S. divisions. He yielded to Eisenhower’s demand and signed the Korean cease-fire in July 1953.

For now, Beijing is calling for peace talks and trying to assume the role of a moderator in the regional conflict. But how much China is willing to do to rein in North Korea at Trump’s behest? Whereas China has stopped imports of North Korea’s coal — a very important foreign exchange earning commodity, it has yet to cut off its most strategic supply to North Korea — gasoline and fuel.

When the U.S. troops in Korea are re-armed with tactical nuclear weapons to counter and destroy thousands of North Korean artillery guns and missiles deployed north to the DMZ, and when Beijing perceives American military attack is imminent, it will show its hand eventually and force North Korea to comply.

Rightly or wrongly, Beijing is also counting on a potential ally in South Korea’s new president to be elected on May 9th, who might adopt a benign policy toward North Korea, much different from the current care=taker regime.

Changes in the Korean Peninsula cannot be foreseen. The most important point to be made is President Trump should not outsource the North Korean problem to China; instead, he should deal with American resources.

Dr. Parris Chang has served on Taiwan’s National Security Council. He is professor emeritus of political science at Penn State University and President of the Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies.