Why China Must Confront North Korea

Monument at Pyongyang Film Studios. Flickr/Creative Commons/Roman Harak

China is reaping what it sowed from years of complacency.

If the United States pursues a more militaristic agenda towards North Korea under Trump, then China has largely itself to blame. After years of China turning a blind eye to sanctions violators and keeping the dangerous North Korean regime alive and its leaders well fed, now a new American administration is saying enough with the current policy of “strategic patience.”

Whether Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments during his visit to Seoul and first trip to Asia really reflects a change in strategy remains to be seen. “Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended,” he said, leaving military options on the table. Trump has been notoriously hard to pin down on almost everything, especially foreign policy. During the campaign he often said that South Korea wasn’t paying the United States enough for its defense, but now it appears he has dropped any attempts to renegotiate those defense parameters, at least in light of North Korea’s increasing provocations.

Still, a policy focused on applying fines and blacklistings to Chinese companies named in violation of sanctions and refusing to talk with North Korea wouldn’t be a huge departure from the Obama administration’s second-term policy. The Treasury Department increasingly used its authority to blacklist companies like Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development in 2016 and placed sanctions on more than a dozen North Korean officials for human-rights violations. Former Secretary of State John Kerry even warned of increasing use of such sanctions in a November meeting with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi. Tillerson was just following the existing policy direction created by the previous administration when he reportedly planned to say the same thing to the Chinese in his March meeting.

But if the Trump administration does up the ante, it will be because proposals to engage in toothless talks with North Korea—like that made this week by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi—have utterly failed, and China hasn’t done its part to try to reign in its rogue frenemy. China’s call for the United States and North Korea to “apply the brakes” is too little, too late. Juxtaposed against its vitriolic response to the South Korean deployment of Terminal High Area Altitude Defense, China’s impassive response to multiple North Korean nuclear tests, always predicated on the same “firm opposition” talking point, which makes it look like China hasn’t been taking the threat of a nuclear North seriously.

While calling THAAD a “destabilizing factor” and placing harsh informal sanctions on Korea’s tourism and entertainment industries, China equivocated North Korean nuclear activity with South Korean-U.S. military drills.

“China’s suggestion is, as a first step, for North Korea to suspend nuclear activity, and for the U.S. and South Korea to also suspend large-scale military drills,” Wang said.

Two things should be crystal clear by now: First, the increasing threat level on the Korean peninsula and the South Korean and U.S. response is entirely due to North Korean provocations. And second, China bears much of the blame for letting North Korea get to this point. Far from destabilizing Northeast Asia, a policy of ending “strategic patience” would be a justified and entirely predictable response to the North and its ally destabilizing the region.

Through multiple presidential administrations in South Korea and the United States of both liberal and conservative compositions, both countries have been patient. They have tried talking. They have tried providing aid. South Korea has tried operating industrialization zones with the North. They have tried providing sunshine. North Korea has responded every time with more threats, more nuclear tests, more murders, kidnappings and shellings.

All the while, China continued to be its only trading partner of note and provided safe haven for businesses like Dandong, which had done over $500 million of trade with Kim Jong-un’s regime, and turning a blind eye to cross-border black marketeers.

Now China says it is going to stop purchasing North Korean coal. You would hope they would when the import of North Korean coal has already been banned by UN sanctions, and China agreed to comply with those sanctions. Yet in December 2016, China imported two million tons of coal from North Korea—twice the allowed limit—at a price that was three times the limit, according to analysis by NK News Data and Analytic Director Leo Byrne. In fact, China had previously announced it would stop importing North Korean coal in April 2016, only to import 2.5 million tons in August. So Chinese credibility on North Korea leaves something to be desired.

Additionally, the perception of the need for THAAD is not limited to South Korea. Japan is considering purchasing THAAD, too, according to reports from late 2016.