“Illegal.” That’s how Chinese state media characterized the one-day meeting of 20 nations on Jan. 16, co-hosted by Ottawa and Washington in Canada, to discuss North Korea. Beijing had other words for the gatheringto which it was not invited: “meaningless,” “counterproductive,” and a product of “Cold War thinking.” Said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, “Since this meeting does not have legitimacy or representativeness, China has opposed the meeting from the very beginning.”
The Chinese, even though they now consider themselves the arbiters of legality, have suffered a setback. The Foreign Ministers Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula, held in Vancouver, was a major step forward for the international community. Freed from the need to accommodate an increasingly aggressive China, the participating states realize they can act on their own to disarm the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Up to now, Beijing has worked hard to prevent solutions.
The international community needs those solutions fast. As Defense Secretary James Mattis remarked while traveling to Vancouver that the situation in North Asia is “sobering.” On the same day, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the nuclear crisis is at a “tenuous stage.”
In Washington, China has been seen as an essential partner. Therefore, Beijing was not only included in North Korea discussions, in the United Nations and elsewhere, it was given a role at the center of the international community’s efforts to disarm the Kim family.
The George W. Bush administration, for instance, took a back seat so that China could play host to the Six Party talks, which were first convened in August 2003 in the Chinese capital. The apparent thinking was that Beijing would seize the opportunity, become a responsible member of the international community, and help defang the Kim regime. The Chinese, in short, would see it in their interest to charm, cajole and pressure their troublesome North Korean allies.
Chinese officials took advantage of their new role, not to support “denuclearization” but to aid the North’s weaponization. Beijing, more often than not, leaned on Washington rather than Pyongyang. Whatever its intentions, China gave the North time, the most important element the Kim rulers needed to make themselves a threat to the world. After it had used that time to detonate its first nuclear device, in 2006, Pyongyang walked away from the talks.
Since then, the Chinese have maintained their support for Pyongyang. Beijing not only extends an economic lifeline — to this day, China has been violating U.N. sanctions by smuggling commodities in and out of the North — but also allows its financial institutions to launder money for the North Korean regime.
Over the course of decades, Chinese enterprises, many of them state-owned, have been supplying components, equipment and materials for the North’s nuclear weapons program and transferring crucial fuel, equipment and components for its ballistic missiles. There are even indications that China has been giving the North Koreans the technology for their most advanced missiles, the solid fuel ones.
George W. Bush, as president, correctly told his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin that the Kim family’s nuclear weapons effort “binds” the United States and China “in common purpose,” but that’s not the way Chinese leaders perceive the situation. Unfortunately, they calculate their interests in ways fundamentally different from the way we think they should.
Nonetheless, the Bush and Obama administrations sought to work with China. And in order to obtain Beijing’s assent — to present a “united front” to Pyongyang — American policymakers made compromises, delaying and watering down sanctions, for instance. Moreover, successive American presidents did not impose costs on China for its continual support for the Kim supremos.
The Trump White House, which at first adopted the approach of its predecessors, has now begun to show exasperation with China, and so the Vancouver meeting did not include Chinese representatives. Most observers have felt Beijing’s exclusion from last Tuesday’s conclave was a mistake. “So much for establishing a common front against the North Korean menace,” wrote Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason.
There has, in reality, been no common front, unfortunately. President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had the good sense to recognize that and exclude the Chinese and their partners in crime, the Russians.
Yet, exclusion of bad actors does not necessarily a solution make. As Charles Burton of Brock University in Ontario told The Hill, “The meeting has been heavily panned by Canadian analysts and politicians for its lack of effectiveness in showing a credible path forward to North Korea’s denuclearization.”
The meeting was, in one sense, disappointing. Yes, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland pledged $3.25 million to the sanctions enforcement program of the State Department, a start in helping other nations police money flows in and out of North Korea, but it was by no means a major step in stopping the regime’s inexorable-looking march to a nuclear arsenal.
Moreover, the 20 nations, although agreeing to step up efforts to seize illicit North Korean goods in port, did not endorse an American plan to interdict North Korean shipping. Interdiction, however, is necessary if the international community is going to prevent the North from selling missiles and other dangerous implements of war. The Chinese have been dead set against effective measures to stop this deadly trade, which they have actively facilitated and protected.
“When we found out about the meeting, we asked, why do you need all those countries together?” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “Greece, Belgium, Colombia, Luxembourg — what do they have to do with the Korean peninsula?”
The participants of the Vancouver meeting either joined the U.N. Command to repel the forces of Kim Il Sung during the Korean War or provided humanitarian aid. China and Russia, Lavrov knows, fought on Kim’s side during that struggle.
The Chinese and Russians may think they must be present at meetings discussing Korea — that no gathering is legitimate without them — but that notion is losing altitude with others. The significance of Vancouver is not that much was accomplished.
It wasn’t. The significance is that free nations recognized that they did not have to give North Korea’s big power sponsors a veto. Good outcomes, fortunately, are now possible.