The 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, attended by leaders from 54 nations, including the United States and China, concluded in Seoul on March 27. South Korea is an important choice for the global nuclear summit because of its unique location as a non-nuclear-weapon state with a nuclear-armed North Korea on its border.
Pyongyang, however, had hijacked the world nuclear conference by announcing a plan to blast a satellite into space on the back of a long-range rocket in mid-April. The U.S. and its allies immediately condemned the North's satellite launching as a disguised way of testing military missiles in defiance of the U.N. Security Council resolutions 1718 and 1874, which banned "all missile activity" by North Korea, including "any launch using ballistic missile technology."
Washington has called Pyongyang's announcement of the launch "highly provocative." Merely a month ago, U.S. chief negotiator on North Korea Glyn Davies and North Korean vice foreign minister Kim Kye-Gwan held "substantive and serious" bilateral nuclear talks in Beijing. Under the Feb. 29 Davis-Kim agreement, Pyongyang agreed to set a moratorium on its long-range missile launches, suspend its enrichment of nuclear fuel and permit the resumption of inspections at North Korea's nuclear facilities by IAEA representatives. For its part, Washington pledged to provide North Korea with 265,000 tons of food aid.
Some analysts and media pundits have hailed the Obama administration's "Food for Peace" plan as offering "plenty of reasons for hope." As an editorial in the Pittsburgh Post put it, "What's different now? First, North Korea's previous leader, Kim Jong-Il, died in December and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-Un. When an older hardliner is replaced by a younger ruler, there is some reason to look hopefully for positive change. The other difference is North Korea's 24 million people have suffered more hunger, penury and isolation since talks with Pyongyang were suspended in 2008. Everyone should be hopeful about the prospects for this agreement. A North Korea that does not wave its nuclear weapons around is a meritorious goal in Asia and in the world."
North Korea's decision to launch another satellite around the April 12-16 launch window has greatly frustrated these North Korea watchers. "This planned launch," Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Security Affairs Peter Lavoy told the House Armed Services Committee, "manifests North Korea's desire to test and expand its long-range missile capability. We believe this reflects their lack of desire to follow through on their commitments, and so we've?been forced to suspend providing nutritional assistance to North Korea."
So just when one thought it was safe to go back to the negotiation table with the North Koreans, Pyongyang pulled the rug out from under everyone. What is Pyongyang up to?
Perhaps no one should be surprised by Pyongyang's sudden change of course. As Ralph Cossa of Center for Strategic and International Studies points out, "the promised U.S. nutritional assistance was neither in the form nor quantity desired, came with monitoring strings attached-recall the North had just turned down an offer for food aid from South Korea because it wasn't 'pure', i.e., it included monitors. Why put up with such indignities when Beijing continues to provide for all your needs with no apparent strings attached and despite your bad behavior?"
Indeed, China is the key in solving the Korean quandary and once again, it all comes down to China-unless Beijing steps in and stops protecting Pyongyang unconditionally, everything will go according to Pyongyang's plan: creating divisions between the United States and its allies by trying to fly a missile or two through Northeast Asia has long been a time-honored North Korean game.
As a result, some in the Obama administration are now beginning to openly criticize China for its knowingly ignorance of North Korea's bad behavior. Most recently, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made it clear that he sees the "reckless behavior of the North Korean regime" as "enabled by their friends in China."
China and the United States have significant shared interests on the Korean Peninsula. However, for the sake of Sino-U.S. cooperation, as Gordon Flake of the Mansfield Foundation emphasized, "Chinese leaders need to realize that their current approach is counterproductive, threatening not only U.S.-China cooperation, but the very stability of the Korean Peninsula and the region. What's required is not for China to abandon its erstwhile ally, but simply to stop shielding North Korea from the consequences of its actions."
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.