U.S. President Barack Obama told ABC News on Wednesday that China is "recalculating" its North Korea policy, which until now tolerated the North's belligerence to maintain the status quo and keep the regime in place. Obama said the changes in China are "very positive."
It is rare for a U.S. president to make such comments about China and hints that fundamental strategic talks have taken place behind the scenes over North Korea.
China has supported two UN Security Council resolutions this year approving sanctions against North Korea. In the process, Washington and Beijing will have talked in great depth about how to deal with the North, which succeeded in launching a rocket capable of being turned into an intercontinental ballistic missile and conducted its third nuclear test.
Both the U.S. and China favor stability on the Korean Peninsula over abrupt change. Obama has vowed not to reward North Korea's belligerent behavior, but also stated that he wants to resume dialogue with Pyongyang if it shows positive signs such as halting its nuclear weapons and missile development programs.
China, which just elected Xi Jinping as its new president, is expected to convene a meeting of top diplomatic and national security officials to determine the direction of its foreign policy. Beijing stood by Pyongyang even after the North sank the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan and shelled Yeonpyeong Island, because just such a meeting of top diplomatic and national security officials after Pyongyang's second nuclear test in May 2009 agreed that the North remains a strategic asset.
That position is likely to come up for review in the upcoming meeting.
But while all these momentous discussions are going on, the Park Geun-hye administration here has not even formally appointed a presidential national security advisor, intelligence chief or defense minister, even though it has been in office for 20 days.
The best scenario for Seoul would be if Beijing persuades Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear weapons program and pursue reforms. Surely one of President Park's most urgent tasks is to prod Beijing in that direction. She must make it clear to both the U.S. and China that South Korea is not a passive bystander in the developments on the Korean Peninsula but one of the main players.