There was a doctor who had been treating a patient for years. The doctor had a son, who also wanted to become a doctor and was attending medical school. During the summer break, the son came back home and watched his father working on the same patient. That evening during the meal, the son asked his father.
"Dad, you know the patient that you've been treating for years?"
"What about him?"
"I think I know how to cure his illness. Actually, it doesn't seem very complicated, either, based on my reading of the medical texts. I think there's a quick solution. You don't have to deal with the same patient for such a long time." The son proudly said, expecting to be complimented for his rapid grasp of medical knowledge.
"You idiot!" The father scolded his son instead. "You think I don't know that myself?"
"Of course, I know how to knock out the disease. But, if I do so, tell me who then is going to pay for your tuition? And how do you think I've paid for your expensive schooling for all these years? That patient has been very useful to us."
I heard this story from a Chinese academic, specializing in geopolitics in East Asia. The doctor is China; the patient is North Korea, he told me.
China has been tasked with treating the North Korean disease for years as the host to the Six-party Talks, an international consortium aimed at denuclearizing North Korea. Instead of curing the disease, however, China used the opportunity to cleverly further its own agenda.
After 13 years in operation, with on-and-off meetings, the Six-party Talks have not fulfilled their stated purpose of denuclearizing North Korea. In fact, the last time the Six-party Talks were held was in December 2008. Many pundits say the talks were de facto dead. Yet despite such a widely held view, China as the host to the international talks, has gained more than it has lost.
First, China used its hosting role of the multilateral consortium to burnish its much-needed international status as a "peacemaker" for the regional conflict. It was quite timely as China was sculpting an international façade as an innocuous nation that was rising peacefully (heping jueqi) and not a threat to the world. With that, it also considerably patched its image hernia from the Tiananmen Massacre.
Second, as the North Korean nuclear issue has become a major international crisis hot spot, China's diplomatic status has also risen. For instance, whenever the North Korean issue becomes front-page headlines, the first person the American ambassador to the U.N. seeks to consult is the Chinese ambassador to the U.N. For instance, there is a widespread picture of the Chinese ambassador to the U.N. Liu Jieyi, conversing with United States ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, discussing how the U.N, should deal with North Korea. Such a picture bolsters the image of the so-called "G2" of the two major world powers, working side by side, on an equal footing. It also lends credibility to China-promoted narrative of "a new type of major power relations" (xinxing daguo guanxi) in which China asks America to respect the Chinese sphere of influence so that they can avoid conflicts.
Third, China's status as host to the talks enabled it to conduct a shuttle diplomacy among relevant countries and control the flow of information by doing so. In the past, China was often sidelined by North Korea, which was only interested in talking to the U.S. But as the host, China was plugged in to the latest information on the other stakeholders' strategic thinking. It even influenced the flow of North Korea-related intelligence, strengthening China's diplomatic clout.
Fourth, the North Korean issue has brought together both China and the U.S. for more frequent consultations, helping their confidence building in the process. A paradox, analysts point out, is that U.S.-China relations may have been much more fraught, had there not been North Korea.
Now, amid deepening strategic mistrust and rivalry, China thinks it's in its interest to sustain the North Korean disease and use it as a strategic pawn against the U.S. It's apparent that the trouble lies as much with the doctor as with the patient. And it's common sense in this case to consider changing the doctor. The irony is that Washington, the chief doctor, has been entrusting China with the task for years, despite knowing so well that China has never been credentialed for such a task. Washington has been outsourcing the North Korean issue to China, while sitting back on the comfy couch, labeled "strategic patience," and neglecting the sick man North Korea.
Many observers call North Korea's latest nuclear test as a "game changer." It is not. We are dealing with the same game with China treating the same patient under Washington's negligence. The true game change will come when Washington invests meaningful political resources and brings a policy care package to tackle the North Korean disease, including more effectively pressuring China.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D. is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.