China and Russia, who have presented themselves as stubborn holdouts against the U.S. and the rest of the world on international diplomatic issues (most recently sanctions against the murderous Syrian government), have reportedly welcomed the news that North Korea will be halting its nuclear weapons testing and development programs.
The agreement, which was reached between American and North Korean officials meeting in Beijing, was announced on Wednesday, Feb. 29 as a first step towards success. The developments were praised by Japan and South Korea, who both have good reason to promote the possibility of a disarmed North Korea. China expressed cautious hope at the news in an editorial written by the state-controlled Xinhua news agency.
But experts advise that it is premature to to make too much of this initial encouraging step at this point, as many details need to come together for significant progress to be made.
If this agreement with the United States leads to the restarting of the six party talks this will be a direction that China will be supportive of the program, said Professor David Lampton, Director of the China Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C. On the other hand, if it leads to a bilateral process, China can see this as the tendency of its neighboring countries to deal directly with the United States, which may make it feel increasingly disconnected.
The six-party talks are a series of diplomatic meetings aimed at finding a peaceful resolution to the security concerns regarding North Korea's nuclear weapons program. The six parties involved are The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), The Republic of Korea (South Korea), The People's Republic of China, The U.S., The Russian Federation and Japan. Although the most recent round of negotiations took place exclusively between North Korea and the U.S. the remaining four parties have all expressed support for the recent diplomatic success, though they have reason to remain cautious in their optimism.
It's obviously going to loosen tensions [between China and the US] in the short term, said Bryce Wakefield, an associate at the Asia Program in the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. But what it means for the long-term relationship depends on North Korea's willingness to uphold the deal.
Wakefield noted that recent diplomatic success is not part of a new negotiation, but the continuation of a process put into place during Kim Jong-il's dictatorship.
The reumption of negotiations, leading to their succesful conclusion, indicates there is some degree of continuity between the two regimes, he said.
This continuity between the newly-appointed Kim Jong-un and his father suggests that even a cautiously positive outlook at recent developments may be too optimistic. North Korea previously agreed to put an end to its nuclear activities in exchange for economic aid in late 2005, a promise which remains unfulfilled today, and which Pyongyang quickly broke, conducting two nuclear tests thereafter. It is one thing to consider the threat North Korea poses from afar, but the nations that border the rogue nation have more pressing concerns. While China has been able to establish civil relations with North Korea's leaders, the nation is a constant threat to South Korea, and just a few days ago it appeared that war was about to break out between the two Korean nations.
South Korea is rightly likely to be skeptical of the North's promise to abstain completely from its nuclear program, said Wakefield. I mean, we have been through these types of negotiations before.
While South Korea has every reason to hope that its neighbor to the North will change its ways and every reason to believe that this may never happen, China may has its own motives for keeping North Korea strong and a significant threat to the U.S. and its allies. A weakened North Korea could lead to a reunited Korea led by the South Koreans with America's backing, putting U.S. friendly troops (or maybe even US soldiers themselves) on China's frontier. Furthermore, although China has good reason to support North Korea disarming its nuclear weapons program, it is likely important to political leaders in Beijing that China takes a more commanding role in any future negotiations.