By: David O. Monda

This week, witnessed the unprecedented diplomatic rapprochement between the presidents of North and South Korea. Political actors around the world witnessed these two leaders cross over the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the 38th parallel and pledge to work towards a new Korea. These precedent setting events, have not been witnessed heretofore. This historic handshake between North and South Korea complicates Sino-American rivalry in Asia.

Several factors have contributed to the unfolding change in diplomatic winds in the Korean peninsula. In relation to South Korean political dynamics, the departure of President Park Geun-hye’s hawkish administration portended well for the thawing in relations between North and South Korea. Former President Park Geun-hye’s administration emphasized a stiffer sanctions regime over North Korea to force it to the negotiating table. The incoming administration of Moon Jae-in adopted a more dovish policy towards its northern neighbor. Moon’s administration emphasized the use of diplomatic channels to settling the disputes between North and South Korea. Soft diplomatic efforts were also pursued by South Korea to win over its neighbor. The recent Winter Olympics in Korea where both the North and South Korea produced a unified team under a unified flag was a coup-de-grace to close over half a century of animosity between the two nations. Such successful soft diplomacy could only lead to more meaningful engagements between representatives of both governments.

Economically, South and North Korea could both benefit substantially from rapprochement. North Korea felt increasingly diplomatically isolated from US led sanctions. With South Korea’s larger economy estimated at a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $1.7 trillion, the North’s shrinking economic options could vastly be improved through increased exports and investment from the South. For South Korea, having a contiguous border link with China is an additional advantage to generating new export markets into mainland China. Rapprochements between the two nations will also increase the attractiveness of North Korea to investment capital from the United States, China, the European Union, South Korea and Japan.

What stands out most is from the handshake between the leaders of North and South Korea is what impact this diplomatic action will have on Sino-American rivalry in the Korean peninsula. While the dominant media narrative is that North Korea is a puppet state of China, this is not true. North Korea applies a dynamic foreign policy of extracting benefits from both the United States and China simultaneously. Its adamant hardball stance on its nuclear program has produced concessions from Washington and made it a close ally of China. This has led to the much awaited meeting between President Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump.

Trump’s Asia policy emphasizes continuity in Obama’s “pivot” to Asia but applying different methods to achieve US foreign policy goals in the region. Trump policy dovetails populist economic nationalism at home with regional security in Asia. He has negotiated via a carrot-and-stick approach on North Korea. The “carrot” being an easing of sanctions on North Korea for ending its nuclear program and the “stick” being an intensification of sanctions and coercive threats of military force to get North Korea to comply with American demands. Trump is following through on his “America First” campaign policy. He is looking to engage bilaterally (US verses North Korea) rather than multilaterally (US vs North Korea and G7 nations) to strengthen the hand of American diplomacy. Ultimately Trump’s Asia policy seeks to have a unified Korea as an ally of the US and a potential partner in a mutual defense pact against China as is currently the case with South Korea. In doing this, the US hopes to continue to encircle its major regional rival China by having China surrounded by nations allied with the United States. Diplomatically, engaging North Korea will deescalate tensions in the region while at the same time keeping an increasingly assertive China in check hence furthering American regional interests.

China on its part, sees a diplomatic engagement between the two Korea’s as a win-win situation because the missile tests of North Korea serve only to irritate regional powers like South Korea and Japan while complicating its relations with Washington. China does not see its interests being served by a war between North Korea and the United States because this would bring in a lot of reginal powers into a very messy confrontation. While the diplomatic engagement between the two Korea’s may not immediately lead to peace in the region, it is a first step in resolving post-World War Two tensions that persist to the present day. It will also go some way in placating the rivalry between the US and China in the Korean Peninsula and lower the risk of Sino-American competition via the proxies of North and South Korea.


David O. Monda is professor of Political Science at City University of New York – Guttman College

Image: Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in shake hands at the DMZ.