North Korea might be reined in, the thinking goes, if China could be persuaded to lean harder on its largest trading partner, and so the Trump administration is contemplating a variety of inducements that run from secondary sanctions on some Chinese banks and companies to a better trade deal for Beijing. But none of these carrots and sticks can overcome China’s mistrust of the United States, which is far deeper than generally acknowledged, nor do they address Beijing’s fundamental strategic concerns. A new approach is needed.
Sanctions are tricky, especially when the target is a country like North Korea, whose economy has largely adapted to its isolation. Apply too little pressure, and the regime retains the wiggle room to continue business as usual. Too much pressure, and the already-unstable country could collapse. That would be Beijing’s worst nightmare, producing a flood of refugees across its borders, loose nukes on its doorstep, and the likely reunification of the peninsula under the South Korean flag, removing the buffer that keeps Washington and Seoul at bay. Chinese leaders, who prioritize peace and stability in the region, have therefore resisted harsher economic pressure toward Pyongyang.
But Chinese mistrust of U.S. intentions runs deeper. From where President Xi Jinping sits, it is the United States who is antagonizing North Korea, through military activities like the U.S.-ROK wargames and the installation of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery in South Korea. And Washington’s repeated attempts to get Beijing to increase the pressure on North Korea, while refusing to acknowledge Pyongyang’s security concerns as legitimate, also lead Chinese leaders to suspect that the U.S. is seeking regime change and Korean reunification. Until the United States can convince Beijing that it has a comprehensive policy toward the peninsula that assuages China’s strategic concerns, Xi is unlikely to risk making an actual enemy out of Pyongyang.
If the U.S. is to gain China’s cooperation in this matter, the effort must begin with high-level strategic conversations to build confidence and trust in each other’s intentions and long-term interests. Fortunately, a window of opportunity has opened up. Sino-DPRK relations have cooled in recent months; Beijing has suspended imports of North Korean coal and threatened to halt exports of oil to Pyongyang, which has responded with unprecedented and public criticism of China.
This window may be brief — witness Beijing’s recent invitation to Pyongyang to attend the Belt and Road Forum —so the Trump administration should quickly launch conversations with Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean leaders in five major areas:
Conditions for using preemptive force. In March, America’s top diplomat asserted that “all options are on the table” with regard to North Korea; a month later, the president himself warned of the possibility of a “major, major conflict.” Trump’s unexpected military actions in Syria and Afghanistan caught both China and North Korea’s attention, but now the Trump administration would benefit from delineating U.S. red lines and respective responses while Xi and Kim are both still figuring Trump out. Under what circumstances should the United States and South Korea use preemptive measures against North Korea? Should U.S. policymakers consider intercepting North Korea’s missile tests?
Conditions for a diplomatic negotiation. Beijing has long pushed for a diplomatic solution to the issue, and Trump said that he would be honored to meet Kim under the right circumstances. So what would his administration consider to be the right circumstances, and what should be discussed? Does North Korea need to commit to halting all weapons testing first? Does denuclearization need to be on the table, or would the United States and its allies be content with first discussing a freeze?
Acceptable U.S. concessions. Alternatively, if Kim does return to the negotiation table, what concessions would the Trump administration be willing to make, in addition to the rollback of sanctions? Would it be willing to pause joint military drills with South Korea, or consider removing the THAAD battery? Would the United States consider agreeing to North Korea’s ultimate goal of signing a peace agreement and normalizing relations between the two countries? Mapping out the terms for engagement and realistic U.S. concessions would signal genuine willingness to try diplomacy and send the ball back into Beijing’s court.
Coordination in the event of a regime collapse. How might the United States and regional actors help China secure its borders, manage refugee flows, and control loose nukes and Pyongyang’s stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons? Lack of healthcare in North Korea has made its malnourished citizens particularly vulnerable to disease and contagion; avoiding a humanitarian crisis if the regime collapses will require much international assistance. Coordinating and planning in advance can also help alleviate Beijing’s concerns of U.S.-ROK forces rushing North to reunify the peninsula, and minimize risks of miscommunication between military forces in the moment.
Long-term interests in the region and the future of the Korean peninsula. Would Washington be willing to “live with a non-nuclear Kim regime on a divided peninsula?” Should the United States consider withdrawing its 29,000 troops in South Korea if the peninsula were denuclearized? If yes, would Seoul still be under the U.S. nuclear umbrella? If not, what would U.S. policymakers consider ceding to assuage Chinese security and strategic concerns? Openly discussing these sensitive issues could help align China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States on a diplomatic front and pave way for a “grand bargain” that serves each party’s interest.
These are difficult and uncomfortable questions, but working with Seoul and Tokyo to devise answers will help build the kind of relationship between Xi and the Trump administration that may ultimately bring peace to the Korean peninsula.