“For the Chinese, we feel we can tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea in the foreseeable future while we work out the long-term disarmament strategy,” Zhao said. “But for the Americans, they are less likely to even accept a nuclear-armed North Korea for the near-term future.”
The U.S. position can be better understood through the lens of a pair of earlier failed agreements with North Korea—failures caused, in Washington’s view, by Pyongyang. The United States pulled out of 1994’s Agreed Framework, under which then-leader Kim Jong Il agreed to freeze his country’s nuclear program in exchange for certain concessions, because it believed the North had secretly restarted a uranium-enrichment program. The 2012 Leap Day deal, under which the North agreed to suspend work on its uranium-enrichment program in exchange for U.S. food aid, collapsed because the North launched a satellite into space—a violation of the agreement, the Obama administration said. Both agreements hinted at what could be achieved through diplomacy. Alternately: They also served as cautionary tales of the perils of negotiating with an untrustworthy partner.
China interpreted these failures differently. As Chinese experts explained, Beijing contended that Pyongyang’s secret uranium-enrichment program did not violate the Agreed Framework because that deal prohibited only plutonium enrichment. Additionally, opposition to the agreement in the U.S. Congress sent mixed signals to Pyongyang about U.S. intentions, they said. The experts argued that this forced it to develop its clandestine uranium program as a hedge in the event the United States reneged on its commitment to the deal.
As for the Leap Day agreement: China believed there was never an agreement between the United States and North Korea to begin with, because they disagreed over whether a satellite launch constituted a ballistic-missile test. (Washington equated satellite launches with ballistic-missile testing; Pyongyang did not.) Consequently, the Leap Day agreement died when Pyongyang launched a satellite soon after it was signed.
“The Chinese interpretation of North Korea’s behavior was [that] they, by and large, are still trustworthy partners,” Zhao said. “They wanted to implement their commitment—they’re not evil cheaters who want to take advantage of every agreement. So that really affects how China drafts its North Korea policy.”
So what does China want? Its plan to resolve the crisis is the so-called “freeze-for-freeze” proposal, in which North Korea would halt its missile and nuclear programs in exchange for the United States and South Korea suspending their joint military exercises—a nonstarter for Washington, which prefers to increase pressure on North Korea while holding open the offer of dialogue.
Unless China adopts America’s approach, at least in part (or vice versa), the crisis is unlikely to diminish. “Even though at the surface level they appear cooperative, deep down their approaches of dealing with North Korea are fundamentally different,” Zhao said. Ultimately, Zhao said, the nature of the disagreements between Washington and Beijing ensures that the crisis of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs will remain unresolved for some time to come.
Reporting for this piece was funded by the China-United States Exchange Foundation.