In what will very likely be the last major speech on North Korea before the Trump administration leaves office, deputy U.S. envoy Alex Wong delivered remarks to the Center for Strategic and International Studies on November 30. The topic: the current state of the U.S.-North Korea dialogue. The prognosis was grim; the Kim dynasty, Wong said, has demonstrated no interest whatsoever in implementing the Singapore joint statement President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signed in June 2018.
The speech, however, was just as much about China as it was about North Korea—or more to the point, China’s refusal to abide by the numerous U.N. Security Council sanctions it voted for over the last fourteen years. Wong was emphatic that the Chinese are not only turning their eyes from illicit North Korean coal exports in their territorial waters, but are actually deliberately hampering the U.N. sanctions regime. “I’ve spoken with enough Chinese diplomats to understand clearly what course of action the Chinese government is advocating,” Wong told the think-tank. “They are seeking to undo the UN sanctions regime they themselves voted for in 2006, in 2009, in 2013, in 2016, and in 2017.”
Beijing choosing to relax their sanctions enforcement, of course, is not unprecedented. Indeed, it would be more extraordinary if Chinese custom officials searched every box coming to and from North Korea or the Chinese navy intercepted every cargo ship carrying North Korean coal or seafood. What was interesting, however, was that Wong had concrete numbers to share. “On 46 separate occasions going back to 2019,” the deputy envoy said, “U.S. vessels provided information to nearby Chinese Navy or Coast Guard vessels that ships involved in DPRK fuel smuggling were fleeing into Chinese coastal waters. The Chinese authorities did nothing to stop these vessels in response. Not once.” The Chinese Communist Party, it appears, has made a concerted decision that it will let its North Korean neighbor export and import whatever it needs to survive at a time when the Kim dynasty is undergoing the triple-whammy of coronavirus-related restrictions, weather events, and U.S.-led sanctions.
We can speculate as to why China is doing this. The most obvious reason cited is that the Chinese crave stability along their border and recognize that some level of trade with the North is required in order to stem an extreme humanitarian crisis. But one can’t help but notice that China’s lax sanctions enforcement is also occurring during a period when Beijing’s relationship with the United States is getting worse for the wear. It is highly likely China is using North Korea as a card in its wider competition with Washington.
Why is this relevant? Because President-elect Joe Biden’s entire North Korea strategy is predicated on the notion that his administration will be able to pressure or encourage the Chinese to crank up the economic pressure on the North and thereby force Kim into a new nuclear negotiation. Biden has made this link on numerous occasions throughout the presidential campaign, including during a Democratic presidential debate back in January. “I met with Xi Jinping more than anyone else,” Biden said at the time. “I would be putting pressure on China to put pressure on Korea, to cease and desist from their nuclear power...their efforts to deal with nuclear weapons.” The then-presidential candidate offered up a similar answer during his last presidential debate with Trump, recalling a time when as vice president he told Chinese President Xi Jinping that he would have to “step up and help” on the North Korea issue if he didn’t like what Washington was doing in the region.
Collaborating with China to tighten the economic screws on Pyongyang has been a bipartisan strategy that multiple U.S. administrations have tapped into since at least George W. Bush. Given North Korea’s dependence on China for approximately 90% of its total trade, it only makes sense for U.S. policymakers to probe whether their Chinese counterparts are willing to assist. Yet the Chinese have never believed bankrupting the Kim dynasty is a particularly effective way of increasing the odds of getting a denuclearization agreement or promoting peace and stability in their region. China can live with a nuclear-armed North Korea—what it can’t live with is millions of desperate, hungry North Koreans streaming across the border.
Convincing China to cooperate on North Korea is tough on a good day. But it’s likely to be downright impossible when Washington and Beijing are on the opposite side of so many issues, from trade and technology to the South China Sea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Joe Biden’s North Korea policy is in effect anchored by a mirage—that a willing Xi Jinping will be a key partner in Washington’s maximum pressure campaign against the North.
To be fair, Biden has yet to roll out an official North Korea policy. All we have at the moment are his words on the campaign trail. The Biden administration will do what other U.S. administrations have done since time immortal: launch a months-long inter-agency review in order to determine what U.S. objectives on the Korean Peninsula are, what combination of tools are appropriate to realizing those objectives, and how the administration will go about negotiating with the Kim dynasty. Back in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un will be watching, waiting, and wondering whether the new U.S. commander in chief will offer up a different strategy from what previous presidents have settled on over the last thirty years.
Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist at Newsweek and a contributor to the National Interest.