Sino-American Cooperation on the Korean Peninsula:
Prospects and Obstacles

Executive Summary: Tensions on the Korean peninsula remain the single greatest challenge to Northeast Asian security. Although North Korea and South Korea must take the lead in ending hostilities, China and the United States can play an important role in facilitating a lasting peace. 

To exchange information and ideas on North Korean developments, and to explore possible avenues for Sino-American cooperation, the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) hosted a May 1998 meeting of distinguished scholars, analysts, and policymakers from China and the United States. This meeting represented a unique bilateral dialogue among American and Chinese experts focused on Korea-related issues. These discussions yielded several key conclusions:

• Diverse views on the prospects for change in North Korea are held by both American and Chinese analysts, underscoring the need for both groups to regularly share information. Some participants optimistically argued that Pyongyang is slowly opening to the outside world, while others argued that incremental change will not result in a significant departure from past patterns of behavior.

• Participants held mixed views regarding prospects for inter-Korean dialogue. Those sanguine about reform in North Korea were also optimistic that Pyongyang would place pragmatic concerns above the goal of reunification. Several participants argued that the economic crisis in South Korea will have the same effect on Seoul, creating a more "balanced" atmosphere conducive to North-South dialogue. Other participants were more skeptical, arguing that both governments continue to view interaction in zero-sum terms, severely constraining the likelihood of progress.

There was general recognition that enhanced stability on the Korean peninsula will require progress in inter-Korean dialogue and that international influence on the future direction of relations between the two Koreas is limited. Although most Chinese participants were supportive of the Four Party talks, they held low expectations that such discussions will produce significant progress.

• Questions of trust in China-U.S. relations undermine prospects for cooperation on the Korean peninsula. China and the United States ostensibly share a wealth of interests in the Korean peninsula. These common concerns include preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to the region; encouraging dialogue between Pyongyang and Seoul; avoiding military conflict; and maintaining stability on the peninsula.

Nevertheless, Sino-American cooperation in the Korean peninsula will be colored by the overall health of their bilateral relations. An American-Chinese relationship which is competitive in overall terms will continue that competition on the Korean peninsula. China and the United States must construct a broader set of understandings concerning their respective roles if confrontation on Korea-related issues is to be avoided.


As the twenty-first century approaches, tensions on the Korean peninsula remain the most immediate challenge to Northeast Asian security. The end of the Cold War has done little to mitigate hostilities. Today the border between North Korea and South Korea remains the most heavily militarized in the world.

Although the international context of bipolar confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States has been transformed, the competition for legitimacy between leaderships in Pyongyang and Seoul—always at the heart of their conflict—has been laid bare. With the Cold War no longer a barrier to rapprochement between the two Koreas, the major challenge now is to end decades of mistrust by supporting an inter-Korean process of reconciliation.

Any successful effort to resolve the Korean conflict must originate with the divided parties themselves. Nevertheless, outside powers have a strong and legitimate interest in the evolution of Korean affairs. Resolution of the conflict will have a profound impact on regional security—and external powers will likely play an important part in safeguarding any final settlement.

The roles of China and the United States are particularly important in this regard. The two countries have strong links to the Korean peninsula: both supplied equipment and troops to fight in the Korean War. Each has actively supported the governments, respectively, in Pyongyang and Seoul. As a new century approaches, China and the United States can now play key roles in facilitating a lasting Korean peace.

Key Questions

What are likely directions of change on the Korean peninsula? What are appropriate roles for China and the United States in influencing this change? Where do American and Chinese interests converge and where do they diverge? Can strategic dialogue between China and the United States increase security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, including on the Korean peninsula?

To address these and other issues, the Asia-Pacific Center, in conjunction with the United States Institute of Peace, convened a focused seminar of distinguished scholars, analysts, and policymakers from China and the United States. Discussions took place in three languages—English, Korean, and Mandarin—over three days.

Prospects for Change in North Korea

In the face of virtual economic collapse, will North Korea undertake meaningful structural reform? The available information is stark: by some estimates, North Korea's gross domestic product has fallen by 50 percent over the last four years, with agricultural production tumbling by 75 percent. Even more optimistic estimates paint a grim picture. The future of the Korean peninsula therefore hinges, in significant measure, on Pyongyang's ability to fundamentally improve the nation's economy.

Reflecting the limited and contradictory information available concerning North Korea's internal situation, American and Chinese analysts displayed a striking diversity of views in assessing North Korean regime dynamics. This reality underlines the importance of regularly sharing information and interpretive analysis between China and the United States.

Optimistic observers asserted that famine and crisis have forced Pyongyang to slowly, if grudgingly, open to the outside world. According to one American participant with extensive experience in North Korea, the regime is clearly changing—even if the steps taken to date fall short of what many Americans might term "reform."

The food crisis has forced cadres to "experiment" in a pragmatic effort to bring in resources from the outside world. "Farmers’ markets," through which people are able to purchase or trade for needed items, have proliferated throughout the country, replacing the national food-distribution system. Pyongyang also has loosened internal travel restrictions to allow people to search for food.

Similarly, the border with China has become more open, allowing limited barter trade and two-way visitor traffic. Indeed, North Korea is now perhaps more open to foreign visitors than at any other time in its history. These changes, according to the optimist school, are significant even if not dramatic.

Supporters of this view in China and the United States argue that outside powers should encourage these favorable trends in North Korea. One senior Chinese scholar from a prominent research institute in Beijing argued, for example, that Beijing and Washington should work to "reduce suspicions" in Pyongyang concerning the intentions of the international community. Some members of the American delegation agreed, urging subtlety and patience when pressing for change in North Korea.

To the extent that Pyongyang sees "reform" as threatening regime stability, pressure for change should be packaged in less overt language. The North Korean leadership must believe it is in control of the process for efforts at change to gradually take hold. At the same time, some participants argued, the pace of change—and whether the leadership in Pyongyang is able to control that pace—will determine the direction and future of North Korea.

Others expressed doubts about North Korea's future course. One American member of the defense community downplayed the impact of these "changes," arguing that the country continues to be "hermetically sealed" to the outside world. Several members of the Chinese delegation also voiced skepticism regarding the ability of the North Korean leadership to initiate fundamental reforms.

According to a Chinese scholar from Shanghai, any reforms implemented to date are simply the result of necessity and not of any fundamental change in Pyongyang's underlying philosophy or world view. North Korea is not moving to adopt the Chinese reform model, this individual asserted, despite Beijing's efforts to encourage it to do so. Pyongyang's leadership may be willing to consider modest changes, or "adjustments," as a means of escaping the current economic crisis, but only insofar as those steps strengthen the economy and reinforce the existing power structure.

Prospects for North-South Dialogue

The debate on the likely future of inter-Korean relations was substantially colored by participants' views of Pyongyang's willingness to pursue genuine reform.

A New Opportunity? Participants hopeful about North Korea's limited efforts at change also see opportunity for progress in North-South dialogue. In particular, several participants from both China and the United States argued that the North Korean leadership no longer considers reunification to be a central priority. Pragmatic concerns—primarily survival of the present regime—are now at the fore and imply a willingness to be more flexible in dealing with Seoul.

A number of American and Chinese participants argued that the economic crisis in South Korea may also have a salutary impact on North-South relations. Ironically, they believe, South Korea's economic difficulties may have improved the psychological balance of power on the peninsula. With both countries facing internal crises—although North Korea's challenges are admittedly far more severe—Pyongyang may be more confident in engaging its southern neighbor.

One young American scholar noted that North Korea has generally avoided attempting to capitalize on South Korea's troubles, remaining largely silent throughout the worst days of the crisis. This show of restraint may reflect a desire to work toward better North-South relations.

The economic crisis, and the election of Kim Dae-jung as president of South Korea, have transformed Seoul's approach to inter-Korean ties. One American participant, who has visited North Korea on several occasions, described South Korea's economic troubles as the "final nail in the coffin of the `collapsist' school" of hard-liners who believe that Seoul should pressure Pyongyang into capitulation and reunify the peninsula on southern terms.

South Koreans were growing wary of the prospective costs of reunification efforts even prior to the crisis. With the country now confronting a steep and probably lengthy recession, those costs have become virtually impossible to bear. Under the leadership of Kim Dae-jung, Seoul has therefore moved toward a policy of "peaceful coexistence" with the North.

As part of this strategy, Seoul has begun to allow more South Korean private-sector activity in North Korea, in addition to pursuing official dialogue with Pyongyang. Private entities have provided fertilizer and cattle, for example, in an effort to alleviate the famine. The new attitudes prevailing in both North and South Korea bode well for progress toward reconciliation, both through bilateral channels and via the Four Party talks involving North Korea, South Korea, China, and the United States.

Persisting Patterns? Several members of the American and Chinese delegations were less hopeful in assessing inter-Korean dynamics. These observers saw little change in the traditional dynamic that has governed North-South interaction: Pyongyang and Seoul both view bilateral relations as a zero-sum game. As long as this historical pattern persists, little progress in North-South ties can be expected.

A participant from a research institute in northeastern China argued that the improved atmosphere on the peninsula is simply the result of a change in tactics, rather than strategy, in Seoul. In this view, South Korea remains committed to reunification on its terms. Kim Dae-jung's effort to achieve "reconciliation" with Pyongyang merely represents a new approach to undermining the North.

For similar reasons, North Korea will be unwilling to move very far down the road of dialogue with South Korea. For Pyongyang, it was argued, the ideal condition on the peninsula is one of neither war nor peace. This strategy allows North Korea to survive essentially unchanged without diverting additional resources to the military and without implementing significant reforms.

In this context, the results of the Four Party talks are likely to be, using the word of one Chinese scholar, "disappointing." Despite this belief, these talks are currently the only available multilateral venue through which negotiations to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula are likely to proceed. Because North and South Korea may have different objectives in the talks, however, the likelihood for significant progress is limited.

One Chinese scholar asserts that Seoul aims for reconciliation and dialogue, while Pyongyang remains deeply suspicious of the process and participates only because it seeks improved ties with the United States and more access to international assistance.

Another Chinese analyst, who has spent many years in North Korea, argued that Pyongyang may even see the Four Party talks as an obstacle to achieving what continues to be its primary objective: reunification on northern terms. In any case, the Four Party talks are likely to demonstrate, at best, stop-and-go progress. Several participants, nevertheless, conceded that the process may have some value as a trust-building mechanism.

Roles for China and the United States

What are the proper roles for China and the United States in the context of evolving North-South dynamics? American and Chinese participants were virtually unanimous on one central point: Pyongyang and Seoul must drive the process of resolving the Korean divide. Even if they sought to do so, China and the United States are simply unable to impose a lasting settlement on North and South Korea. Beijing and Washington have a limited ability to affect the course of events on the peninsula.

Indeed, at times the direction of influence appears to be exactly the opposite: North Korea and South Korea have frequently manipulated outside powers to gain support for their respective positions.

Short-term Common Interests. The group reached a firm consensus that China and the United States share a number of interests on the Korean peninsula—at least over the short-to-medium term. One Chinese participant pointed to at least four common concerns:

These mutual interests appear to invite Sino-American cooperation in facilitating peaceful change on the Korean peninsula.

Obstacles to Cooperation. Participants from both countries agreed, however, that there are significant obstacles to Sino-American collaboration which will prove difficult to overcome.

A senior Chinese participant suggested, for example, that Americans and Chinese have different outcomes in mind when they speak of a North Korean "soft landing." American support for North Korean reform and integration into the international community is not aimed at making the regime more prosperous and viable; rather, Washington's goal is to support a stable Korean unification process, albeit gradually, on terms acceptable to Seoul.

Chinese objectives, however, are quite different. Beijing views reform in North Korea as critical to the regime's prospects for survival. Chinese authorities do not want to see North Korea collapse. Beijing also does not want Pyongyang to undergo a full-scale conversion to "capitalism"—and it may not want the peninsula reunified under Seoul's leadership.

Although American authorities recognize that the process is likely to be long and may occur in phases, the United States has traditionally assumed that reunification—on Seoul's terms—is the desirable final objective on the Korean peninsula. China's long-term goals are less clear, however. Chinese participants suggested that Beijing would also welcome reunification, provided that the resulting Korean state was not anti-Chinese in orientation. In light of this uncertainty, Beijing may well prefer a divided peninsula.

For Beijing, the peninsula represents a vital security interest. A Chinese participant noted that China will be the first to be affected by turmoil in Korea, while the United States is more removed from any possible conflict.

An American participant echoed this perspective, arguing that China has always viewed the areas along its borders as "buffers" against outside influence. On this basis, Beijing believes it should be the lead external "player" on the Korean peninsula.

For Washington, the alliance with South Korea represents just one relationship in a network of global interests considered vital to American security. In essence, according to one American scholar, the United States is a global power while China is a regional power. The two countries therefore will accord the Korean peninsula differing strategic weights, complicating prospects for cooperation.

One American participant argued that China views US policy toward the Korean peninsula "through the prism of containment." Confirming this view, a Chinese scholar asserted that American policy is dedicated to preserving Washington's position as the hegemon in a unipolar world.

China, in contrast, seeks a multipolar world of several powers all broadly equal in strength. These diverging perspectives "constrain options for cooperation" on the Korean peninsula. Therefore, a competitive American-Chinese relationship at the global level will result in competition between the two powers on the Korean peninsula. Even low-level confidence-building mechanisms may be seen as tactics in the larger game of gaining and preserving global influence.

This mutual suspicion was most evident during discussions regarding the future of American troops on the peninsula. Several Chinese participants questioned the continuing need for the presence of American forces, particularly after Korean reunification. They argued that Washington must do a better job "explaining" the rationale for its policy before it can be accepted by others.

Several American participants argued that US forces will continue to have a role on the peninsula even after reunification, playing the part of regional balancer and guarantor of stability. They did acknowledge, however, that the number of American troops is likely to be reduced significantly as a result of domestic pressures within the United States.

Chinese concerns about the US military presence in South Korea clearly are influenced by other sources of friction in Sino-American relations. One American participant pointed out, for example, that as long as Taiwan's status remains ambiguous, Beijing will view US forces anywhere in the region with suspicion. Regardless of its stated purpose, the US military presence in the region may be seen by China as a possible weapon to support Taiwanese independence.


Prospects for Sino-American cooperation on the Korean peninsula hinge on the ability of Beijing and Washington to develop a "larger set of understandings" concerning their respective roles on the world stage. Until this strategic framework is in place, mutual suspicions will color interactions on the peninsula.

The process of developing this broader framework will be long and uneven. Participants agreed that expanded dialogue at all levels, pursued through bilateral and multilateral channels, is key to deepening mutual understanding. This dialogue should include, on a regular basis, the sharing of information concerning developments in North Korea.

Such talks should also focus on areas where American and Chinese interests converge. In particular, the two governments could undertake a frank and detailed exchange on contingency planning and responses to specific Korean peninsula scenarios. Over time, such discussions may lay the groundwork for effective Sino-American cooperation in facilitating change on the Korean peninsula.

American and Chinese participants both recognized the inability of either country to "control" North Korea or South Korea. Working together, however, China and the United States may be able to provide a positive atmosphere that encourages the two parties to take steps toward reducing tensions and achieving a lasting peace.

This report was written by Christopher B. Johnstone, a Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. For more information on this program, contact the Asia-Pacific Center Research Division at (808) 971-8900.

About the Seminar

The influence of China-U.S. relations on the political situation on the Korean peninsula has been widely recognized, most notably through the inclusion of both nations as participants in the Four Party talks formally launched in Geneva in December 1997. There has been little sustained and frank bilateral exchange, however, between American and Chinese specialists concerning the prospects for Sino-American cooperation on the Korean peninsula.

Drawing on relationships developed during a June 1997 visit to Northeastern China by Scott Snyder, USIP Program Officer, the United States Institute of Peace and the Asia-Pacific Center invited the China Reform Forum to initiate discussions among American and Chinese scholars, analysts, and policymakers. The organizers acknowledge the cooperation and advice of Chen Shuxun, Vice Chairman of the China Reform Forum, in shaping the agenda and participation for this program. Dru Gladney, Robert Speer, and Stephen Noerper provided critical support in the implementation of the event.


Dr. Cai Run
Associate Research Fellow
China Contemporary World
Research Center
Beijing, China

Dr. Cao Huayin
Researcher and Interpreter
China International Cultural Exchange Center
Beijing, China

Dr. Chen Shuxun
Vice Chairman
China Reform Forum
Beijing, China

Dr. Chen Youliang
China Reform Forum
Beijing, China

LtG Joseph DeFrancisco
Deputy Commander in Chief
US Pacific Command
Honolulu, HI

Mr. L. Gordon Flake
Associate Director
Korea Roadmap Project
Atlantic Council of the United States
Washington, DC

Col Robert Forte
Department of Transnational Security
Asia-Pacific Center
Honolulu, HI

Dr. Dru Gladney
Dean of Academics
Asia-Pacific Center
Honolulu, HI

Ms. Bonnie Glaser
Consultant on Asian Affairs
Reston, VA

Mr. Thomas Harvey, III
North Korea Country Director
Office of the Secretary of Defense
Washington, DC

Mr. Christopher Johnstone
Research Fellow
Asia-Pacific Center
Honolulu, HI

Mr. James Kelly
Pacific Forum/CSIS
Honolulu, HI

Dr. David M. Lampton
Director of China Studies
Nitze School of Advanced International Studies
Washington, DC

Dr. Chae-jin Lee
Claremont McKenna College
Claremont, CA

Prof. Liu Ming
Associate Professor
Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences
Shanghai, China

Dr. Liu Jinghua
Associate Professor
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Beijing, China

Mr. Robert Magner
DCI Representative
US Pacific Command
Honolulu, HI

Dr. Ronald Montaperto
Senior Fellow
National Defense University
Washington, DC

Dr. Niu Jun
Senior Research Fellow
Nobel Institute
Oslo, Norway

Dr. Stephen Noerper
Associate Professor
Asia-Pacific Center
Honolulu, HI

Dr. Kongdan Oh-Hassig
Research Staff Member
Institute of Defense Analysis
Alexandria, VA

Mr. Douglas Paal
Asia-Pacific Policy Center
Washington, DC

Adm Joseph Prueher
Commander in Chief
US Pacific Command
Honolulu, HI

Prof. Qi Baoliang
Research Professor
China Institute of Contemporary International Relations
Beijing, China

Dr. C. Kenneth Quinones
Representative Designate
Asia Foundation
Seoul, South Korea

Amb Charles Salmon, Jr.
Foreign Policy Advisor
Asia-Pacific Center
Honolulu, HI

Mr. Paul Smith
Research Fellow
Asia-Pacific Center
Honolulu, HI

Mr. Scott Snyder
Program Officer
United States Institute of Peace
Washington, DC

Ms. Jin Song
Research Fellow
Asia-Pacific Center
Honolulu, HI

Capt Robert Speer
Director, Conference Division
Asia-Pacific Center
Honolulu, HI

Mr. Hank Stackpole, III
Asia-Pacific Center
Honolulu, HI

Amb Richard Teare
Foreign Policy Advisor
US Pacific Command
Honolulu, HI

Prof. Yan Xuetong
Director, Center for Foreign Policy Studies
China Institute of Contemporary International Relations
Beijing, China

Mr. Philip Yun
Senior Advisor
Department of State
Washington, DC

Prof. Zhang Feng
Academy Secretary
Jilin Academy of Social Sciences
Jilin, China

Prof. Zhang Shoushan
Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences
Liaoning, China