U.S.-China Summit & North Korea

As expected, the joint statement produced by Presidents Obama and Hu was not ground-breaking on the North Korean issue. It is hard to say that there were any substantially new achievements. However, it was still a positive outcome with some meaningful points because it reflected both sides’ positions on contentious issues (regardless of an agreement), and it generally kept in line with the position of Washington’s allies. Washington and Beijing agreed on some key points in general and in principle, but many of those key points are reaffirmation of each other’s original positions. The language is also heavily nuanced, which is normal in public diplomatic rhetoric. It appears Beijing has not steered far away from its original stance, and we can still see that Washington and Beijing hold differing views on those same key points. KEY POINTS Here’s a run-down of some initial thoughts on points that stand out: (Click "read more") (1.) “The United States and China emphasized the importance of an improvement in North-South relations and agreed that sincere and constructive inter-Korean dialogue is an essential step.” It’s clear South Korea’s position was reflected in the joint statement because Seoul, Washington and Tokyo are pushing for inter-Korean dialogue to precede the Six Party Talks in the wake of consecutive North Korean attacks. (2.) “(In this context), the United States and China expressed concern regarding the DPRK's claimed uranium enrichment program” This is perhaps the most eye-catching because the joint statement specifically mentions “uranium enrichment program,” which is a term President Hu avoided in the joint press conference. This sentence is significant because it’s clear that Washington’s (and its allies’) position has been reflected in the joint statement, and it’s significant because it the term “uranium enrichment program” is specifically mentioned. It also shows Beijing is concerned about Pyongyang’s nuclear developments. At the same time, however, the language has been left a bit vague to reflect Beijing’s main position with the phrase “claimed” uranium enrichment program. Just days before the summit, China’s foreign ministry made a public comment that failed to acknowledge the existence of a uranium enrichment facility shown to an American scientist last November. So it’s clear there are fundamental differences here. Still, “the United States and China reiterated the need for concrete and effective steps to achieve the goal of denuclearization and for full implementation of the other commitments made in the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks.” Hopefully this will translate into real action to jumpstart dialogue. (3.) The joint statement did NOT specifically condemn North Korea’s attacks on South Korea: “Both sides expressed concern over heightened tensions on the Peninsula triggered by recent developments.” However, President Obama said in their joint press conference that the two sides “agreed that North Korea must avoid further provocations.” ROAD AHEAD What’s most important is how North Korea will respond, and how Washington and Beijing will follow up on their joint statement. The joint statement says, “The two sides called for the necessary steps that would allow for early resumption of the Six-Party Talks process to address this and other relevant issues.” However, Washington and Beijing still disagree on the mechanics of moving forward. The U.S., South Korea and Japan want inter-Korean dialogue first, then the Six Party Talks. China, on the other hand, wants the Six Party Talks first and THEN deal with all outstanding issues. The concern surrounding Beijing’s proposal is that Pyongyang’s attacks will remain unresolved and overshadowed by six party nuclear negotiations, which many argue is exactly what North Korea wants. The allies want the road to dialogue to generally look something like this:
Some gesture of taking responsibility for attacks ==> Inter-Korean dialogue ==> Genuine action reflecting a sincere will to denuclearize ==> U.S.-North Korea dialogue ==> Six Party Talks.
Washington will be debriefing Seoul on the summit by sending a senior official to South Korea. But aside from the summit’s results, we'll likely see a flurry of diplomacy among the six parties in the weeks and months to come.  While it’s always tough to make predictions about diplomacy, we may see some real action as early as February, which is after President Obama's State of the Union address next week.