North Koreans attend a rally against the US and South Korea in Nampo, North Korea, April 3, 2013. (Reuters)
Remember the North Korea crisis? Just a few weeks ago? The one where North Korea’s portly young basketball-fan-in-chief threatened to rain nuclear missiles down on the United States and turn Washington into a “lake of fire”? Where did it go?
Well, it turns out that not only did President Obama handle the crisis pretty well, refusing to respond to North Korea’s outlandish provocations, using minimal deterrence measures, reassuring US allies in Japan and South Korea, quietly meeting with South Korea’s president to call for restraint, and—most important—seeking China’s cooperation. It also turns out that China, mostly behind the scenes, did the right thing, too.
President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China are scheduled to meet in sunny California next week, and it will be a critical encounter indeed, on a stunningly wide range of topics. But on the eve of that meeting, Beijing is signaling that it has shifted its Korea policy dramatically as a sort of “gift” of good will toward the United States in advance of the Xi-Obama meeting. It is not, of course, a gift: China is doing what it is doing out of its own national interest. But it’s an indicator of what might happen if the United States and China overcome their lingering hostility and mutual suspicion and tackle world crises together—including, of course, the emerging standoff over China’s rise in the Pacific and Obama’s ill-conceived “pivot” toward Asia.
Yesterday, in an important news analysis, The New York Times reported the possible Chinese shift on Korea, quoting a top Chinese Communist Party official about the new policy of the Xi administration:
“The former administration always put ensuring the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula in first place, while the current administration sets the denuclearization of the peninsula first,” the paper quoted Zhang Liangui, of the Communist Party School of the Central Committee, as saying.
China will no longer “indulge” North Korea’s weapons program at the cost of instability in North Asia, Mr. Zhang said. This brought China and the United States closer together, Mr. Zhang said.
Shi Yinhong, a “professor of international relations at Renmin University and an occasional adviser to the Chinese government,” called the new policy a “big gift” to Obama, confirming earlier speculation that China had read North Korea the riot act over its provocative nuclear saber-rattling:
Mr. Xi has offered a “big gift” to the United States, Mr. Shi said, by pressuring the new leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, to resume talks over his country’s growing nuclear weapons program.
A few days ago, the Times reported that China had “bluntly” told North Korea to behave itself: