The Skeptics

Time to Strike a Diplomatic Deal with China on North Korea

The politics also might be dicey for President Xi. He must navigate a party congress next month at which he is expected to win a second term and pack the top party and governing institutions with his allies. North Korea has lost support from academics and the public; social media users go out of their way to mock Pyongyang’s peculiarities, including the role of “Fatty Kim,” an informal sobriquet for the North’s supreme leader. However, the DPRK long has been a special concern of the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party, which handles relations among ideological friends. The People’s Liberation Army also traditionally championed the North. Giving in to U.S. pressure and receiving nothing in return wouldn’t enhance Xi’s reputation as he presses his colleagues to renew his authority.

Instead of rushing ahead, as if Kim Jong-un had a mass of ICBMs ready to fire and was plotting a first strike on the American homeland—he does not and is not—the Trump administration should initiate serious discussions with other Security Council members, especially China and Russia. The former’s role would be particularly critical, so the United States should acknowledge Beijing’s interests. The PRC long has blamed the United States for threatening the North and encouraging Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons and urged Washington to develop a positive package and talk to the DPRK. The Trump administration should sketch out such an initiative and indicate its willingness to sit down with the Kim regime to discuss all issues. In doing so, the United States then would urge China’s support for the initiative.

The Trump administration also should commit not to use Chinese pressure on the North to Beijing’s geopolitical disadvantage. Washington and its allies could, for instance, offer to assist in any messy North Korean implosion, accept Chinese military intervention in the event of a DPRK breakdown, and neutralize a reunited peninsula, as Seoul ended its alliance with America and the United States brought home its troops.

Unfortunately, so far the Trump administration appears convinced that Beijing has an obligation to turn over its one nominal ally in East Asia to America and allow the latter to take full advantage. From Washington’s standpoint, nothing less than unconditional surrender appears acceptable. Unsurprisingly, the PRC has refused to go along with Washington’s special pleading. Chinese support for a full oil embargo is unlikely. The state-controlled Global Times previously suggested the possibility of an oil cut-off, but after the latest nuclear test it urged Beijing to stay out of the controversy: “China should not be at the front of this sharp and complicated situation.”

In choosing penalties against—rather than coordination with—the PRC, Washington risks overplaying its hand. For instance, targeting Chinese firms could stiffen Beijing’s resistance to imposing potentially regime-ending sanctions on the North. President Trump’s refusal to even acknowledge that the PRC has serious reasons for its current policy and assumption that the promise of unnamed trade concessions is sufficient to overcome Beijing’s security concerns, discourage China from acting.

Despite the Trump administration’s almost histrionic outbursts, the North Korea issue remains largely unchanged from a month or even a year ago. The DPRK is making surprising progress in developing both nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, but still is not in position to attack America. More important, deterrence almost certainly will work against Kim Jong-un, who like his father and grandfather favors virgins in this world rather than the next, as it did against Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong.

This is a good thing, since the chance of stopping the North from gaining a sizeable arsenal of deliverable nukes is slim and shrinking. In time, absent a political miracle, the North it is likely to join such nations as Russia, China and India in possessing the ability to deter U.S. military action with the threat of devastating nuclear retaliation.

The administration’s best shot at deterring North Korea would be to mix diplomacy and sanctions in an initiative backed by Beijing. But winning that assistance requires persuasion rather than compulsion. With DPRK-China relations in tatters, now is a good time to press for the PRC’s cooperation, which means convincing Beijing that pressing the North further is in China’s interest as well as America’s interest.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and coauthor of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.

Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts during a celebration for nuclear scientists and engineers who contributed to a hydrogen bomb test, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on September 10, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS