China Quarterly of International Strategic Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2
Distrust between the United States and China continues to grow in Northeast Asia. Among many contributing factors, the North Korea issue is one of the most important, as illustrated by the controversy over the possible deployment of the United States’ THAAD missile defense system in South Korea. Thus, resolving or mitigating the Korea problem, a significant goal in its own right to both the United States and China, is also essential to reducing U.S.-PRC (People's Republic of China) strategic distrust. China and the United States share long-term interests vis-à-vis the Korean peninsula. The question is how its resolution might be achieved. U.S. efforts to induce North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile programs by offering incentives and imposing sanctions have failed, and Chinese attempts to encourage Pyongyang to adopt PRC-style economic reforms have not fared much better. With Washington, Beijing, and Pyongyang unlikely to change their approaches, the hope for any new initiative must rest with Seoul. South Korea’s special relationships with the North, the United States, and the PRC, along with its status as a dynamic middle power, give it the potential to play a larger leadership role in dealing with North Korea. In doing so, South Korea should consult with the United States and China on a long-term strategy for inter-Korean reconciliation that would, for now, finesse the nuclear issue. Such a strategy would require U.S. and Chinese support of the South Korean leadership in addressing the Korea problem. The process of working together with Seoul to formulate and implement this strategy would allow both powers to ensure that their long-term interests on the peninsula are respected. Although there is no guarantee that such an effort will succeed, the worsening situation on and around the Korean peninsula and the U.S. and PRC’s lack of progress all argue for this new approach, as do the potential benefits to the U.S.-PRC relationship.