North Korea’s latest nuclear test has pushed the Trump administration into a near frenzy, even though America has lived with the threat of annihilation for more than a half century, starting when the Soviet Union built atomic weapons. The United States relied on deterrence to prevent an attack by Joseph Stalin’s tyrannical regime.
A little later Washington also tolerated, albeit reluctantly, Maoist China’s entry into the select nuclear club . That prospect was as unsettling as the Kim dynasty gaining control of nuclear weapons. The Johnson administration debated but rejected preventative military strikes.
President Donald Trump seems to be considering taking similar action today, and is making the case very publicly. Yet his blustering and posturing have done more to unsettle America’s allies than frighten North Korea. If anything, his behavior has convinced Pyongyang of the need to move more quickly to develop an effective deterrent.
Hopefully, the president’s promises of “ fire and fury ” and threats of military strikes are more rhetorical than real, given the horrendous consequences of triggering the Second Korean War. An isolated and paranoid Pyongyang is likely to view most any U.S. military action as the start of regime change and respond accordingly. A better strategy would be to press for tougher sanctions while offering to negotiate, based on providing security guarantees, international recognition, development assistance and more.
So far, however, President Trump has talked of little other than more penalties, while applying special pressure on the People’s Republic of China, which has the greatest economic ties with the North. The moment seems right to enlist the PRC in a sustained effort to at least halt and perhaps roll back Pyongyang’s nuclear and programs. The DPRK’s latest nuclear test embarrassed President Xi as he was preparing to host a summit of the BRICS states, which is comprised of important emerging economic powers.
In fact, China’s relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea always have been difficult. These days the two governments barely talk. Over the last five years President Xi Jinping met with South Korea’s past president a half dozen times, but not once did he meet with the North’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un. And Beijing has agreed to steadily tighter sanctions, most recently a ban on the DPRK’s export of oil, lead and seafood.
Yet so far the Trump administration has failed to recognize that it needs to negotiate with—not dictate to—the PRC. Washington’s latest gambit is to push for an immediate vote on forbidding oil sales to the North. Russia’s Vladimir Putin already has rejected that proposal. Chinese assent also is unlikely. Foreign Minister Wang Yi refused to get into specifics, observing that : “Given the new developments on the Korean peninsula, China agrees that the UN Security Council should make a further response and take necessary measures.”
Washington may hope that its demand for an almost immediate vote will embarrass Beijing and win its consent. In the past U.S. diplomats worked with representatives of China, Russia and other Security Council members to craft a measure, which then was assured of passage. In contrast, this time the disagreements are likely to be very public.
An effective ban on oil imports, of which China provides 80 percent, could cripple the North Korean economy, though not necessarily the regime. Despite the North’s talk of Juche, or self-reliance, the DPRK is not energy-independent. However, Kim would protect his military programs and ideological elite while letting economic hardship fall heavily on everyone else. As a result, even a total oil embargo might not be enough to force Pyongyang to change course. In the late 1990s a half million North Koreans died from famine, yet the present ruler’s father did not adopt reforms in response. A similar refusal today is why Russia’s Putin rejected an oil embargo: “They’ll eat grass, but they won’t abandon their program unless they feel secure.”
Moreover, the Chinese have important reasons for not wanting to make the North Koreans eat grass. From Washington’s standpoint, what’s not to like about a DPRK collapse? It would eliminate a longtime, troublesome opponent, erase a Chinese buffer state, strengthen Washington’s ally, the Republic of Korea, and expand U.S. containment of Beijing.
Unsurprisingly, the PRC has a very different perspective. Beijing doesn’t want a national implosion on its border. The result could be millions of refugees flooding across the Yalu River into China, a civil war and fighting that overflows the border, loose nuclear weapons, and other dangerous consequences. Moreover, if the South effectively swallowed the DPRK, China would face a much stronger and nationalistic Korea. One that, if still allied with America, would host U.S. troops, perhaps near China’s border. To prevent such a possibility in 1950 Beijing went to war. Circumstances have changed, but bilateral sensitivities remain, especially since the PRC believes the United States is attempting to contain China with bases, treaties and forces.