While it may seem arcane, a single paragraph of the joint statement issued at the close of the summit offers cause for optimism. This is because it refers three times to the September 19, 2005 joint statement of the Six-Party Talks, in which North Korea committed to “abandoning all nuclear weapons nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards.”
This serves two important purposes: First, the statement sets a clear definition of what the US and China now jointly mean when we refer to “denuclearization,” including the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Second, in view of the fact that Six Parties unanimously reaffirmed that the goal of the talks is the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, Obama and Hu once again jointly defined the parameters of -- and indirectly a core requirement for – the resumption of the Six-Party Talks.
Also of note, the January 19, 2011, Obama-Hu joint statement placed US and Chinese “concern regarding the DPRK’s claimed uranium enrichment program” clearly in the context of the September 19, 2005 joint statement.
Few analysts realistically expect China to abandon its erstwhile North Korean ally or to be proactive in putting major pressure on Pyongyang. However, at a minimum it is reasonable to expect China to recalibrate its position to make sure that it recognizes that in the process of trying to avoid collapse in North Korea, its approach actually is increasing the risk of conflict and the likelihood of the further advancement of North Korea’s nuclear program.
At this point, the key contribution China could make toward helping break the cycle of North Korean provocations would be to simply stop shielding North Korea from the consequences of its actions. In no small part, the current cycle of North Korean provocations has been abetted by, if not encouraged by, apparently unconditional support from China.