US President Barack Obama said, "We agreed that North Korea must avoid further provocations,” when he held a joint press conference with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao on January 19. This comment raised an expectation that China may have shifted its stance on North Korea, since the former has so far declined to admit that the latter is responsible for last year’s provocations against South Korea including the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
The joint statement, which was released a few hours later, however, merely said both sides expressed concern over heightened tensions on the Peninsula, which were triggered by recent developments. There was no wording on provocations nor reference to the sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
China reportedly went so far as to suggest that they could not issue a joint statement unless they came to some kind of consensus. As the result, China officially blamed both Koreas for the mounting tensions and apparently resisted the inclusion of direct references to North Korean provocations.
The two presidents also noted their continuing efforts to cooperate closely on matters concerning the Peninsula. In addition, the two sides emphasized the importance of an improvement in North-South relations and agreed that a sincere and constructive inter-Korean dialogue is an essential step.
All this shows what a delicate balance China is trying to keep regarding North Korea. Sources earlier claimed US and Chinese officials came to a standstill for hours in making words referring to the Korean Peninsula.
Actually, affairs on the Korean Peninsula were reportedly the toughest issues for US and Chinese officials in drafting the joint statement. Kurt Campbell, the US assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and his counterpart Cui Tiankai, the Chinese vice foreign minister, tried to tune up the 2AM. on the day when the two presidents were scheduled to meet, which might be a signal that the two countries will repeat the same arguments in other discussions like in the UN Security Council.
Inter-Korean Dialogue is Precondition for Six-party Talks?
The main bone of contention reportedly was how to refer to North Korea’s uranium enrichment program which Washington considers as a direct threat. After tuning it up with South Korea, Washington wanted to include a phrase calling for discussion of the uranium program at the UNSC, but Beijing resisted it saying that they had not known the program until recently.
Instead the statement says that China and the US expressed concern about North Korea’s claimed uranium enrichment program. The statement went on to say, “Both sides oppose all activities inconsistent with the 2005 Joint Statement and relevant international obligations and commitments.” By international obligations and commitments, the statement meant UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874 banning the North from all nuclear activities. The US officials apparently think the inclusion of this phrase as the one of their biggest achievements.
Seoul and Washington would like to believe this would pave the way to bring the North’s uranium program to the UN Security Council, but China opposed mentioning directly on that route. As if showing such opposite positions, the statement said, “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,” which helped, observers say, Washington save Beijing’s face by including a reference to the stalled six-party talks which China chairs.
The statement also calls for “sincere and constructive” inter-Korean dialogue to preserve peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, referring direct denuclearization talks, rather than the talks on economic cooperation the North has recently been urging.
Calling inter-Korean dialogue an “essential step,” the joint statement hints that there can be no resumption of the six-nation nuclear talks or direct Washington-Pyongyang talks unless there is inter-Korean dialogue.
Prior to the coming-out of the statement, the Chinese leadership had mentioned the denuclearization in a written Q&A with the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post just before he made a state visit to the US on January 18.
Hu said to the two news daily, “We stand for achieving denuclearization of the peninsula in a peaceful way through dialogue and consultation to maintain peace and stability of the peninsula and Northeast Asia,” He added, “For this purpose, China actively advocates and promotes the six-party talks process.”
He expressed the hope that proceeding from the overall interests of the denuclearization of the peninsula and regional peace and stability, the parties concerned will take active measures and create conditions for the resumption of the talks.
Hu claimed, “I am convinced that as long as the parties respect each other, engage in consultation on an equal footing, and implement the September 19th Joint Statement in a comprehensive and balanced way through the six-party talks, they will arrive at an appropriate solution to the Korean nuclear issue and contribute to lasting peace and stability on the peninsula and in Northeast Asia.”
Asked whether China believes that reunification of the Korean peninsula will bring more stability than maintaining the status quo, Hu answered by saying, “As a close neighbor and friend of both Koreas, China hopes that the North and the South will improve relations and achieve reconciliation and cooperation through dialogue and consultation and eventually realize independent and peaceful reunification, and we support their efforts in this regard. This is in the fundamental interests of both the North and the South and leading them to peace and stability.”
The Chinese President said even that “independent and peaceful reunification” of the two Koreas is in the fundamental interest of both sides. The Chinese leadership expressed support for reunification independent of the military and political influence of the US and led by the two Koreas themselves several times.