Obama, Xi and North Korea: The Long Overdue Conversation

When President Obama meets with President Xi Jinping this week in California, North Korea will feature prominently on the agenda. Xi seems prepared to engage in a serious discussion of this endlessly vexing and worrisome issue. For decades, Pyongyang has defied external pressure to alter its behavior, exploiting fissures among neighboring powers and the United States while sustaining pursuit of nuclear weapons development. But the North’s repeated threats of recent months and its open defiance of Xi Jinping have done more damage to its relations with China than perhaps any event since North Korean agents assassinated a substantial portion of South Korea’s cabinet on a visit to Burma in October 1983.

Leaders in Beijing now openly acknowledge that North Korea’s actions and weapons programs directly jeopardize Chinese vital interests. This has not been easy for China to admit, but better late than never. President Obama no longer needs to chastise Beijing (as he once did to Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor) about China’s “willful blindness” toward the DPRK. Beijing is also pursuing closer relations with the Republic of Korea, irrespective of the North’s heated objections to such ties. This process will culminate with the state visit of South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, to Beijing later this month.

The discussions between Obama and Xi will enable a long overdue conversation about the dangers posed by North Korea, and how both countries (in conjunction with the ROK) weigh the risks to their collective interests. It represents a major test of whether China’s declared interest in a new pattern of major power relations is a serious policy initiative and not simply a slogan designed to reassure the outside world.

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