Rowing Together: Developing Parallel Paths to Stability, Denuclearization and a Peace Regime on the Korean Peninsula

Last updated December 23, 2013

Recent developments on the Korean Peninsula have led to dramatic changes in the regional security environment, as North Korea has continued to make progress on its nuclear weapons program in the wake of deadly conventional attacks on South Korea in 2010. Further, these provocations have occurred against the backdrop of a delicate leadership succession process within the North Korean regime, from former leader Kim Jong Il to his young son Kim Jong Un. One of the most troubling trends to evolve from this series of events is the divergent reaction by China on the one hand, and the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) and the United States on the other. Emerging as a serious challenge to regional peace and stability is the lack of comprehensive dialogue amongst the three countries that focuses on managing near-term nuclear and deterrence challenges and developing a shared vision for the future of the Korean Peninsula.

The primary cause of the divergence in the U.S.-ROK-China triangular dynamic is a widening gap in priorities among the three powers in relation to the North Korean problem. While the United States and the ROK emphasize the importance of denuclearizing the Peninsula, China increasingly emphasizes maintaining stability within the North Korean regime in order to preserve a buffer from perceived allied encroachment on its border. China, in particular, is underestimating near-term risks from proliferation and conflict escalation, in part because it is uncertain about the potential long-term implications of pressing harder for substantial change on the Peninsula. As the stakes get higher, the main players are moving in opposite directions, and simple U.S. and ROK insistence that China alter its stance is not enough to change this dynamic in any meaningful way.  

In response to this problem, IFPA, with generous support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, has launched a major new project that focuses primary attention on the U.S.-ROK-China triangle as the key dynamic in helping to shape a peaceful and denuclearized Korean Peninsula. The two-year project includes a series of Track 1.5 dialogues aimed at exploring new avenues for enhanced trilateral cooperation on the Korean Peninsula, including issues related to stability, denuclearization, and an eventual peace structure. An underlying, yet critical, objective is also to explore possible avenues where Beijing can recommit to reining in, as opposed to simply enabling, Pyongyang’s nuclear development and other provocations—thus restoring China’s role as part of the solution rather than a problem on the Korean Peninsula.

The first project workshop was held in Beijing on May 10, 2012, and included leading experts from China, South Korea, and the United States. The workshop was jointly organized by IFPA as well as the Beijing-based China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) and the Seoul-based Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (IFANS). In order to stimulate the workshop discussions, a select group of participants was chosen to prepare paper presentations representing each of their respective country perspectives. The next trilateral dialogue will be held in South Korea in 2013 and will generate another set of policy papers.