Last week, President Trump named North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism, tagging the communist country with the label almost a decade after the Bush administration removed it. “In addition to threatening the world by nuclear devastation, North Korea has repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, including assassinations on foreign soil,” Trump said last Monday, adding that the “North Korean regime must be lawful. It must end its unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile development, and cease all support for international terrorism, which it is not doing.” The next day, the U.S. Treasury Department slapped sanctions on individuals and entities with links to North Korean financial institutions, including three Chinese companies. North Korea responded by calling the U.S. designation a “serious provocation and violent infringement.”
For Washington, the road to a diplomatic solution with North Korea goes through Beijing. But despite public statements to the contrary, the United States and China are quite divided on some key questions, including why North Korea pursues nuclear weapons in the first place, and on the reasons why previous agreements to halt its illicit activities failed. Unless they can bridge these gaps, any lasting resolution of the North Korean crisis is unlikely.
The Trump administration has said that its goal is to isolate North Korea, in the hope that pressure through sanctions will compel it to renounce its nuclear and ballistic-missile programs and seek dialogue with the United States. But China, North Korea’s largest trading partner and chief political benefactor, dismisses that idea. Beijing believes that for Washington to convince Kim Jong Un to come to the negotiating table, it must assure him that regime change is off the table. On several occasions, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said precisely that, but contradictory messaging from the White House has sent conflicting signals to North Korea—and China—about America’s intentions.
In a recent meeting with a group of U.S. reporters in Beijing, Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinhua Center for Global Policy said that, if backed into a corner, the North Korean regime isn’t going to back down. “It is more likely to enhance its military threats because for North Korea this is basically a game of risk-taking between Pyongyang and Washington,” he said.
North Korea has a long history of provocation in the face of what it regards as threats from the United States and South Korea. It has warned of a “merciless strike” in retaliation against their joint military exercises, and said it would accelerate its nuclear-weapons program in response to the deployment in South Korea of the Terminal High Altitude Thermal Defense System, a U.S. anti-missile defense network. It has also warned that it would strike the U.S. territory of Guam after Trump vowed to bring “fire and fury” against North Korea if it threatened America or its allies. But within these threats, Chinese analysts said, lies a fundamental disagreement between the United States and China over the nature of the threat posed by North Korea.
Chinese experts believe North Korea’s leaders pursue nuclear weapons because they feel genuinely threatened by the United States and South Korea. In a Brookings Institution strategy paper published in May 2017, Fu Ying, a retired diplomat who represented China in multilateral talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, wrote that in the early 1990s, Pyongyang felt especially vulnerable following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its main diplomatic and financial benefactor during the Cold War. Around the same time, China opened diplomatic relations with South Korea, the North’s nemesis, while the United States and the South continued their military exercises, which the North viewed as a provocation. Feeling isolated, North Korea began its pursuit of nuclear weapons in earnest.
The view from Washington is quite different. Government officials and experts alike believe North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons has aggressive and offensive objectives. Pyongyang, they believe, will use its nuclear weapons to push U.S. forces out of South Korea and then force reunification of the Korean Peninsula on its terms. Trump administration officials said that North Korea must first commit to giving up its existing nuclear weapons (experts estimate the country has enough fissile material to build 20 such weapons). That position is a nonstarter in Pyongyang, and Beijing is sympathetic to its view.
“For the Chinese, we feel we can tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea in the foreseeable future while we work out the long-term disarmament strategy,” Zhao said. “But for the Americans, they are less likely to even accept a nuclear-armed North Korea for the near-term future.”
The U.S. position can be better understood through the lens of a pair of earlier failed agreements with North Korea—failures caused, in Washington’s view, by Pyongyang. The United States pulled out of 1994’s Agreed Framework, under which then-leader Kim Jong Il agreed to freeze his country’s nuclear program in exchange for certain concessions, because it believed the North had secretly restarted a uranium-enrichment program. The 2012 Leap Day deal, under which the North agreed to suspend work on its uranium-enrichment program in exchange for U.S. food aid, collapsed because the North launched a satellite into space—a violation of the agreement, the Obama administration said. Both agreements hinted at what could be achieved through diplomacy. Alternately: They also served as cautionary tales of the perils of negotiating with an untrustworthy partner.
China interpreted these failures differently. As Chinese experts explained, Beijing contended that Pyongyang’s secret uranium-enrichment program did not violate the Agreed Framework because that deal prohibited only plutonium enrichment. Additionally, opposition to the agreement in the U.S. Congress sent mixed signals to Pyongyang about U.S. intentions, they said. The experts argued that this forced it to develop its clandestine uranium program as a hedge in the event the United States reneged on its commitment to the deal.
As for the Leap Day agreement: China believed there was never an agreement between the United States and North Korea to begin with, because they disagreed over whether a satellite launch constituted a ballistic-missile test. (Washington equated satellite launches with ballistic-missile testing; Pyongyang did not.) Consequently, the Leap Day agreement died when Pyongyang launched a satellite soon after it was signed.
“The Chinese interpretation of North Korea’s behavior was [that] they, by and large, are still trustworthy partners,” Zhao said. “They wanted to implement their commitment—they’re not evil cheaters who want to take advantage of every agreement. So that really affects how China drafts its North Korea policy.”
So what does China want? Its plan to resolve the crisis is the so-called “freeze-for-freeze” proposal, in which North Korea would halt its missile and nuclear programs in exchange for the United States and South Korea suspending their joint military exercises—a nonstarter for Washington, which prefers to increase pressure on North Korea while holding open the offer of dialogue.
Unless China adopts America’s approach, at least in part (or vice versa), the crisis is unlikely to diminish. “Even though at the surface level they appear cooperative, deep down their approaches of dealing with North Korea are fundamentally different,” Zhao said. Ultimately, Zhao said, the nature of the disagreements between Washington and Beijing ensures that the crisis of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs will remain unresolved for some time to come.
Reporting for this piece was funded by the China-United States Exchange Foundation.