The “forgotten war” that institutionalized the division of the Korean peninsula—a war that has not ended—might have been avoided if the United States and the People’s Republic of China had come to terms with each other in 1949 instead of 1979. Sixty-six years on, as the Kim dynasty develops nuclear weapons, mutual suspicion between the United States and China continues to abet a perpetual state of crisis in Korea.
American pundits pin the blame for the latest nuclear test on China. The accusation rests on the widely held assumption that China should pressure North Korea by halting food and energy exports, which are not restricted by UN sanctions. A September 9 editorial in the New York Times seems to suggest China’s refusal to squeeze North Korea’s economy is why Kim Jung-un continues to test with impunity.
Conversely, China puts the onus on the United States. A September 12 editorial in China’s Global Times argues North Korea’s nuclear test is a response to repeated US military exercises off the Korean coast that the United Nations ignores. Chinese leaders say these exercises evince “Cold War thinking” that threatens the peace and prosperity of Korea and the rest of Asia.
The conviction that the United States and China are locked in a zero-sum contest for supremacy sustains this blame game by defining Korea as a pawn. US analysts argue China supports the North to preserve a buffer state that keeps US forces from its border. Chinese analysts argue US defenses in the South, especially missile defenses, are a shibboleth for anti-China containment.
These viewpoints can lead to tragic consequences. Had Truman not believed China was a pawn of the Soviet Union, he may have attempted to talk with Mao before China steered its armies into Korea. Had Mao not believed Truman wanted to turn China into a US colony, he might have listened.
In a post I wrote three years ago, “US and China See North Korean Problem Differently,”I discussed why experts in China support sustaining aid and trade with North Korea. Their motives may be less mercurial than US analysts and the New York Times imagine: based on its own history, China believes stronger sanctions would be ineffective and ultimately counterproductive.
As President Obama prepares to engage President Xi in another round of negotiations over new sanctions, he may want to broaden the conversation to include a reassessment of the role of Korea in US‑China relations. Continuing to fight over the same old ground is unlikely to lead to a breakthrough.