Washington as well as Pyongyang wonders what the incoming administration will do about North Korea. Candidate Joe Biden said that he would meet Kim only with adequate preconditions, which might be too severe for North Korea’s acceptance. And the incoming president, like his soon-to-be-predecessor, may be surrounded by hardliners even less interested in diplomacy.
Michele Flournoy, the seeming favorite to become the next defense secretary, is on record opposing negotiation. Four years ago she emphasized the importance of “additional sanctions, particularly sanctions place on—sanctions that involve pressure from China.” War, too, was an option in her view.
Much has changed over the last four years, and even Flournoy appears to have moderated her views, acknowledging the odds against achieving denuclearization. The prospect of Beijing offering a helping hand to Washington seems especially unlikely. But not impossible. However, if the incoming administration hopes to call on China to improve its leverage against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Washington will have to offer compensatory benefits to the former. President Xi Jinping and his coterie of Chinese Communist Party apparatchiks will deliver nothing for free.
China hawks tend to overstate Beijing’s influence over the DPRK. Throughout the Cold War, Kim Il-sung balanced the Soviet Union against the People’s Republic of China and maintained distance from both. For years Pyongyang resisted advice from successive Chinese governments to avoid monarchical succession, eschew nuclear weapons, and adopt economic reforms. One reason Kim Jong-un hoped for an improved relationship with the U.S. was to strengthen his independent course and reduce his dependence on the PRC.
Indeed, contra their public rhetoric, the DPRK and China have never been close. Beijing intervened militarily in late 1950 to prevent the North from being overrun by allied forces. However, Mao Zedong was more concerned about the PRC’s security than North Korea’s survival. Pyongyang never gave China due credit for its efforts. And Kim laid waste to Beijing’s North Korean allies as he created an all-consuming personality cult. Kim later publicly fell out with Mao, who criticized the planned power transfer to his son.
In recent years popular and academic hostility toward the North has burgeoned. Official displeasure also became increasingly obvious. President Xi Jinping met a half dozen times with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, even giving her a place of honor in viewing the 2015 parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Kim Jong-un received no invitation to visit China, even as a tourist. In 2016 and 2017 the PRC sharply tightened sanctions enforcement. Officials in the North did not hide their anger in response. When I visited Pyongyang in mid-2017 my interlocutors emphasized their nation’s determination not be dependent on any nation, leaving no doubt which unnamed country they meant.
China’s diplomatic freeze disappeared with the prospective Trump-Kim summit. Beijing understood that normalizing relations with America would allow North Korea to distance itself from the PRC. Xi obviously did not want to be cut out of the action. So he suddenly became Kim’s best friend, holding the first of four meetings with the North’s Supreme Leader before the Singapore gathering with Trump. Later the Chinese leader visited Pyongyang, a singular sign of respect. More substantively, Beijing loosened sanctions enforcement and almost certainly is providing food and energy assistance, helping keep Kim regime afloat amid sanctions, COVID, and multiple typhoons. Whether the North could have muddled through otherwise is not certain, though the family dynasty has shown great resilience, even surviving famine and mass death in the 1990s.
Having strengthened bilateral ties, the PRC has little reason toss its revived alliance overboard, especially given the current state of China-U.S. relations. With Washington having declared political and economic war on Beijing, backed by growing efforts at military containment, the Xi government prefers to preserve even a troublesome neighbor, since it diverts U.S. attention and resources and divides Washington and Seoul.
Even better relations would not avoid another dilemma: the very steps desired to encourage denuclearization, most notably strict sanctions enforcement, risk destabilizing the North, creating a potential implosion, which China fears even more than a nuclear DPRK.
Moreover, collapse would create the likelihood of reunification, which would put a united Korea, a U.S. military ally hosting American troops, directly on the PRC’s border, which Mao’s China went to war to prevent in 1950. Unless Beijing forestalled reunification by intervening to support or recreate the North Korean state, preempting reunification, the Chinese government would be effectively aiding hostile American containment efforts.
How to get the PRC to help? The starting point would be to halt the collapse in bilateral relations. The two governments don’t have to be especially chummy, but Beijing would need to perceive a reasonable prospect of improved ties. If unremitting hostility is the new norm, Xi has no reason to risk the recent upgrade in relations with the North.
Moreover, Washington should seek to disconnect resolution of the “North Korea problem” from the larger confrontation between the U.S. and PRC throughout East Asia. Such as it is, Pyongyang is China’s only military ally. Cambodia, Nepal, and Pakistan might qualify as distant friends. Beyond them the Xi government’s relations even in Asia are mostly transactional, based on its economic prowess. There is no Sino team even in the PRC’s near abroad.
Thus, Washington and Seoul should indicate their commitment to cooperate with Beijing in both the short- and long-term on the peninsula. If Chinese pressure resulted in a crisis in the North, the allies would assist the PRC in addressing the potentially severe economic and social consequences. Moreover, the U.S. and ROK should indicate that a reunified Korea would be militarily neutral and American forces would return home. In this way, Chinese assistance confronting the North would not be turned against it militarily.
At the same time, the allies should provide the PRC with their proposed road map for an agreement with Pyongyang, mixing sanctions relief, economic development, and security guarantees. Then China could add its encouragement and pressure behind the effort. Washington also should seek support from both Japan and Russia—particularly their commitment to assist the DPRK’s entry into regional affairs, and especially economic life.
None of this would be easy, especially given the current trajectory of U.S.-PRC relations. However, Washington must decide how serious it is in pursuing denuclearization, which increasingly is seen as an impossible dream by Korea analysts. “Maximum pressure” has failed and has no chance of succeeding without Chinese support. And Beijing will not assist if doing so puts it at an additional disadvantage in its own neighborhood in the face of an increasingly confrontational U.S.
There is another reason for the incoming Biden administration to reach out to China on the North. It is one topic on which the two countries could cooperate. In that way, it would also demonstrate the value of maintaining a civil, if competitive, relationship, with Beijing. Which could prove to be more important for the U.S., and the world, than whatever happens with North Korea.
For years wishful thinking has dominated U.S. policy toward the DPRK. The seeming assumption that the mere incantation that the North “must not” develop nuclear weapons would magically achieve that result. Failing that, telling the PRC to reign in Pyongyang would solve the problem. To have any chance of making progress, the Biden administration must operate in the world as it is, rather than how Washington long wished it to be.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.