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Trilateral Call: China Restrain Pyongyang

Author: Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies
December 7, 2010

Trilateral Call: China Restrain Pyongyang - trilateral-call-china-restrain-pyongyang


Japan's Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan met yesterday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington to discuss the rising tensions on the Korean peninsula. The meeting again emphasized the U.S. security commitment to South Korea and Japan, and the joint statement issued at the end of discussions clearly outlined they would maintain their close policy coordination and condemnation of North Korea's continuing effort at building nuclear capabilities.

But the most noteworthy message that emerged from yesterday's high-level diplomatic meeting between the United States and its allies in the region was directed to China. Calling on Beijing to play its "special role" in the effort to sustain peace in the Northeast Asia region, Clinton, Maehara, and Kim urged Beijing to restrain Pyongyang and bring calm to the Korean peninsula.

Second, all three asserted their commitment to peace building and stability in Northeast Asia. In carefully crafted language, their joint statement was designed to encourage Beijing to join them in devising a regional effort to cope with North Korea's belligerence. The statement welcomed China's support for UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, which sanctioned North Korean nuclear activities, and indicated their willingness to improve relations with North Korea should it cease its military provocations.

But clearly the United States, Japan, and South Korea are not willing to go back to the negotiating table. Wu Dawei, China's representative to the Six-Party Talks, has called for an emergency session. But yesterday's joint statement suggested that concrete actions on the part of North Korea would be required before this idea could be seriously considered. While there was no mention of what specific actions were being considered, Foreign Minister Maehara did note that Japan would like to see IAEA inspectors allowed back into North Korea and that he would continue to consult with China and others in the region on specific measures.

However, the demonstration of trilateral cooperation involving the United States, Japan, and South Korea went beyond events on the Korean peninsula. Underscoring the benefits of cooperation across the board in political, economic, and security issues, Japan, South Korea, and the United States have crafted a strategic vision that builds on their common status as "three of the world's major economies with shared values."

Beijing cannot ignore this aspect of yesterday's message. Tolerance for Chinese support for North Korea has reached its limit in Northeast Asia, and Pyongyang's recent behavior has deeply affected China's broader political and economic relationships. Whether or not China has the capacity to shape North Korean choices remains to be seen. But at the very least, yesterday's meeting suggests the time has come for Beijing to demonstrate clearly that it stands against--rather than for--the use of force on the Korean peninsula.

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