Could America Convince China and Russia to Keep North Korea in Check?

DPRK and Chinese flags at the Arirang Games. Flickr/Creative Commons/Roman Harak.

The time is right to double down on cooperation with China.

Pundits around the whole Asia-Pacific have been scribbling furiously about the supposed import of a brief and largely ceremonial phone call. That might make a nice break from the tedium of talking about rocks and reefs, but more sober analysts will retain their focus on genuine strategic problems that gravely threaten U.S. national interests and international security more generally. As Pyongyang races ahead with its nuclear-weapons program, Seoul is being torn apart by a scandal of massive scope. When combined with U.S.-China tensions that were growing apace even before Trump’s election, the potential for catastrophic (nuclear) war in Northeast Asia is dangerously close at hand.

Helping to nudge this combustible brew toward some semblance of stability is the first grave challenge that the Trump administration faces. And even as the cabinet is filled with Middle East experts, this threat to U.S. interests far outpaces that of ISIS, Syria, or even Iran. Never mind that the “Iran model” for dealing with North Korea may be a moot point, since the Obama administration’s nuclear accord with Tehran could well be abrogated by the new administration. You can bet that Pyongyang will be watching that closely. It has been argued in this venue, and with some justification, that Washington actually has no major interests at stake on the peninsula and that the United States can safely let others cope with the “fallout,” so to speak. That drastic solution is not advocated here. Rather, Washington has a definite role to play in defusing the current crisis and energetically moving to denuclearize the peninsula. But this can only be done if the United States is willing to actively cooperate with China in the process. To move forward in this way, Washington must fully understand evolving perceptions regarding the Korean situation in Beijing.

Unfortunately, Chinese analyses with respect to the peninsula are becoming ever darker. Tsinghua University professor Liu Jiangyong (刘江永) writes in the lead article of a recent edition of the journal Northeast Asia Forum (东北亚论坛) that the peninsula is trapped in a vicious cycle of increasing tensions (恶性循环的怪圈), and that Pyongyang’s current approach is disturbingly to “prepare to fight a nuclear war [准核战争].” Like most Chinese analysts, Liu is skeptical that sanctions will succeed in disarming North Korea, arguing that Washington’s softening on Cuba policy in the last few years demonstrates a recognition with respect to the limits of what sanctions can achieve. He is particularly concerned that current U.S.-ROK military plans seem to be inclining toward “preemptive [先发制人]” attack with a troubling emphasis on “decapitation [斩首].” Under such circumstances, Pyongyang “must be ready to launch its nuclear warheads at any moment,” according to this Chinese assessment. Thus, each time that there is an ROK-U.S. large-scale military exercise, Pyongyang is “extremely anxious [十分担心],” lest the exercise evolves into a preemptive attack. There is a perceptible sympathy for Pyongyang in this piece, for example, when Liu notes that China was in a similar situation during the 1960s of confronting grave threats and seeing an imperative to break the superpower nuclear monopoly.

Liu points out the irony in the situation over the last few years, in which Washington has urged Moscow and Beijing to go along with sanctioning Pyongyang, even as it has simultaneously applied sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis and built up its military forces against China in the South China Sea. Indeed, Liu laments that when China has gone along with the United States in the UN Security Council, there have been no corresponding positive gestures from the American side on either the South China Sea or the East China Sea, as Washington simply “persisted in its old ways [我行我素].” Yet again drawing on the volatile South China Sea situation, Liu suggests that Washington is using the same “wedge strategy” it has employed in Southeast Asia to try to “disintegrate China’s ties with North Korea [瓦解中朝关系].” However, Liu also points out the problem that even as the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang has indeed become more fraught (越来越不正常), so this has made North Korea feel more insecure, which in turn has caused it to accelerate its nuclear program. This author also makes note of gathering forces in Japan that support a nuclear program and he decries the imminent deployment of U.S. missile defenses (namely THAAD) into South Korea as well. In the end, Liu recommends that more focus be accorded to developing security ties between China and North Korea. Many American readers may actually agree with his conclusion that the whole problem can really only be resolved through a U.S.–North Korea diplomatic breakthrough. In that much needed process, Liu pledges that China would play an “active and constructive role.”