Opinion: What’s behind Obama’s late-night phone call to China’s President Hu Jintao about Korea

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It wasn’t the case 69 years ago tomorrow, Dec. 7. But generally, it’s a good thing when two countries’ leaders or diplomats talk to each other regularly.

So, late Sunday night Washington time, Monday in China, President Obama telephoned Hu Jintao, the president of China whom he just chatted with last month in Seoul (see photo above). The subject was North Korea, the decrepit, starving geographic buffer between China and South Korea. The North has been misbehaving again, as it often does to cover internal leadership struggles or to acquire more fuel oil.


According to the traditionally useless White House description of such calls (see full text below), the bilateral phone call didn’t accomplish much.

Obama and Hu agreed on but one thing: That the U.S. and China should work together for....

...'peace and stability in Northeast Asia.’ Well, that partnership has certainly worked well in recent years, not thwarting the North’s development of nuclear weapons, not heading off its development of long-range missiles, not preventing the sinking of a South Korean ship last spring and not avoiding shelling of an innocent island recently. The rest of the Sunday call, according to the White House chronicle, was Obama talking some more about the North needing to stop its provocations and meet its international obligations and Obama condemning the North’s shelling and its continued defiant pursuit of uranium enrichment.

Obama also ‘urged’ China to send a clear message to North Korea. If sent, those messages don’t seem to be getting through to Pyongyang.

The most important part of the president’s call description may well have been the seemingly boilerplate reiteration of America’s ‘commitment to the security of our allies in the region.’

About six decades ago another Democratic administration was cleaning up the loose ends of World War II. After a half-century as a Japanese colony, the Korean peninsula was sliced at the 38th Parallel, with a Soviet puppet state in the North.

After ceding control to a new semi-democratic government in the South in June 1949, the last U.S. troops left. That and U.S. diplomatic statements by the Truman administration gave North Korea’s unbalanced leadership and China’s new Communist victors the impression that that rocky peninsula was beyond the interests or influence of the United States.

On June 25, 1950, 361 days after American soldiers departed, North Korea invaded South Korea. That launched the 37-month-long Korean War, which to this day has only a ceasefire, no peace treaty. As one result, to this day also, 30,000 U.S. troops remain in South Korea.

And the 44th president carefully makes a seemingly redundant late-night phone call to China to reiterate U.S. support for that republic.

Readout of the president’s call with President Hu of China Tonight (December 5), the President called China’s President Hu Jintao to discuss North Korea. The two Presidents discussed our common interest in peace and stability in Northeast Asia and the priority of ensuring the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. They agreed on the importance of the United States and China working together toward these shared goals. The President emphasized the need for North Korea to halt its provocative behavior and to meet its international obligations, including its commitments in the 2005 Six Party Joint Declaration. The President condemned the North Korean shelling of a South Korean island on November 23 and its pursuit of a uranium enrichment program in defiance of its obligations. He urged China to work with us and others to send a clear message to North Korea that its provocations are unacceptable. The President also highlighted the American commitment to the security of our allies in the region.President Obama also raised Iran. He stressed the importance of P5+1 unity in order to address Iran’s nuclear program.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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