Pompeo’s Claims that China Obstructed North Korea’s Denuclearisation
Image: Ringo Chiu/Shutterstock
This article was first published by Hankyoreh on 25 July 2022 and is reproduced with permission.
The North Korean nuclear issue can’t be resolved without US cooperation with Beijing — but Pompeo’s rhetoric makes that appear near impossible.
North Korea is making swift progress on its nuclear weapon and missile programs. It has already test-launched 18 ballistic missiles this year and is very likely to carry out a seventh nuclear test as well.
What’s particularly troubling is a decisive shift in North Korea’s nuclear doctrine, as it seeks to make its nuclear warheads smaller, lighter and more diverse.
Along with its long-standing position that nuclear weapons are a means of retribution and deterrence, Pyongyang is now moving to officially adopt the pre-emptive use of tactical nuclear weapons. That was strongly indicated by the “addition of operational missions and the revision of operational plans for front-line units” during the third expanded meeting of the Eighth Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea, which was presided over by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on June 21.
Simply put, all efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue over the past 30 years have proved futile.
“Up until 2006, North Korea did not have nuclear weapons,” Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, remarked recently, while lamenting that the international community had failed to prevent the North from gaining nuclear weapons despite several rounds of negotiations. He described that as “a big collective failure.”
Grossi attributed the responsibility to all countries involved. Nevertheless, the US on one side and China and Russia on the other continue playing a pointless blame game, with each side blaming the other for the failure.
Mike Pompeo, who served as secretary of state under the Trump administration, was a leading advocate of China’s responsibility in the matter. In an interview with the Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean daily newspaper, on July 7, he argued that Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party have blocked North Korea’s denuclearisation.
“There were many times that I was convinced that Chairman Kim himself believed that the right path forward was the one that we were offering, but that it was in fact Xi Jinping that was operating him,” Pompeo said in the interview.
According to Pompeo, China’s actual objective is to maintain North Korea as a “buffer state” while using the North Korean nuclear program as leverage for diverting American resources and maintaining discord between the US and North Korea as part of its policy of countering the US.
China’s ultimate goal, in Pompeo’s eyes, is to turn the Korean Peninsula into an obedient client state under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. He added that tough sanctions put genuine pressure on Kim Jong-un, pressure that brought him to serious denuclearisation talks.
Pompeo’s provocative claims of Chinese obstructionism were flatly dismissed by responsible Chinese figures as nonsense. The Chinese retort that North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons goes against China’s national interest and that China has actively cooperated with the US through the Six-Party Talks and other measures aimed at Pyongyang’s denuclearisation.
It’s also true that, given North Korea’s uniquely independent foreign policy, there are clear limitations on Beijing’s influence over the North. The Western assumption that Xi Jinping could change Kim Jong-un’s attitude with a single phone call evinces ignorance of the historical characteristics of Beijing-Pyongyang relations.
Given its penchant for erratic behavior, Pyongyang is hard to handle not only for Washington, but also for Beijing. Pompeo’s argument repeats the Trump administration’s error of exaggerating China’s influence over North Korea.
In addition, the argument that China is exploiting the North Korean nuclear card to counter the US is the mirror image of the argument that the US is playing up the North Korean nuclear issue to counter China. But just as a nuclear-armed North Korea is a serious security risk to the US, it undeniably presents an element of instability to China as well.
The Chinese say that such calculations lie behind Beijing’s support for peace, stability and denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula and a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear issue realised through dialogue and negotiations. Cooperation with the US, they say, has also derived from Chinese foreign policy goals based on the national interest.
The Chinese add that Pompeo’s view of North Korea as a buffer zone reflects an outdated mindset and that Beijing has no reason to sow discord between the US and North Korea, given its steady support for the normalisation of Pyongyang-Washington relations.
Since China is already strapped with the responsibility of ruling a population of 1.4 billion people, it has no reason to turn North Korea into a client state, the Chinese say. Those are their grounds for dismissing Pompeo’s argument as a typical attempt to demonise the Chinese Communist Party.
In actuality, the Chinese say, Pompeo’s belief that sanctions are a cure-all is the main reason no solution has been found for the North Korean nuclear issue. In their view, Kim Jong-un joined talks with Trump in 2018 not because he was under pressure from sanctions but rather because Trump recognised him and demonstrated his willingness to resolve the issue through dialogue and negotiations.
According to the Chinese, there’s still just one solution: diplomatic talks based on the principles of “freeze-for-freeze” of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile tests and ROK-US military exercises, “parallel progress” toward a peace regime and the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, and gradual exchange of simultaneous concessions. The Chinese are adamant that this issue cannot be solved by the US’ total reliance on sanctions that it refuses to lift until North Korea has denuclearised.
As this suggests, the viewpoints of Pompeo and the Chinese are diametrically opposed. One thing that is clear, however, is that the North Korean nuclear issue can’t be resolved without cooperation with Beijing. If major politicians with presidential ambitions such as Pompeo ignore that and cling to an almost conspiratorial theory of Chinese responsibility, there’s little chance that the US and China will be able to work together to reach a breakthrough on the North Korean nuclear issue.