China Power

What Should China and the US Do About North Korea?

U.S. and Chinese experts weigh in.

What Should China and the US Do About North Korea?
Credit: Flickr/ (stephan)

The question of how to best approach North Korea and its rapidly advancing missile and nuclear programs is a source of much debate in both China and the United States. The Diplomat and Dunjiao (formerly Consensus Net) spoke with a variety of Chinese and U.S. experts to get their advice on how to tackle this thorny issues. The responses are below.

Yu Shaohua, Senior Research Fellow in the Department for Asia-Pacific Security and Cooperation, China Institute of International Studies: 

With Trump taking control of the White House, the North Korean nuclear game has entered another round. On the U.S. side, the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy is recognized as unsuccessful, but Trump seems not to have better a path toward the same goal. As for North Korea, although the DPRK has achieved a series of breakthroughs in nuclear and missile technology over the past decade, since  the Six Party Talks were discontinued, its strategic situation is getting worse. In particular, Pyongyang has suffered under the most severe UN sanctions in history for almost a year. It is hard to claim that North Korea is not hurried and anxious.

Therefore, the present environment provides a good opportunity for both the DPRK and the United States to reconsider their policies and strategies. Both countries shall take care not to miss the change. Since neither side has the ability and willingness to win by force or coercion, dialogue is undoubtedly the best option. The problem is under what conditions to reopen dialogue. One of the most important factor making the reopening of dialogue difficult is that both sides set preconditions that are not acceptable to each other. The United States insists that the DPRK must promise to abandon its nuclear program in the first place, which is tantamount to forcing North Korea to accept defeat before the negotiations have even started. On the other hand, the DPRK requires that negotiations take place only under the premise of North Korea being recognized as nuclear country, in defiance of international rules.

These unreasonable negotiating conditions are not meant to truly open the grounds for dialogue. The DPRK thinks the ultimate goal of the United States is to topple its regime, while the United States believes the DPRK’s possession of nuclear weapons is not solely as a bargaining chip or self-defense tool. At the very least, the majority of public opinion holds that neither of the above suspicions can be ruled out. From my point of view, if these perceptions are the main reasons behind both sides’ preconditions over the years, before a new round of talks begins, both countries should abandon the practice of setting definitely hopeless goals. Instead they should consider the parallel track plan proposed by China.

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Joshua Pollack, Editor of The Nonproliferation Review and Senior Research Associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey:

As it contemplates what to do about North Korea, the Trump administration might be well advised to avoid the mistakes of its predecessors. After all, any new administration will have plenty of chances to make blunders of its own invention. So here, for whatever it may be worth, is a review of some of the “worst practices” of the past.

Reach for a panacea. After North Korea successfully launched a satellite for the first time in December 2012, and conducted its third nuclear test in February 2013, the Obama administration quickly reprogrammed funds to put additional Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptors into silos in Alaska. But according to the New York Times and the Washington Post, enough doubts about the efficacy of GMD soon emerged that the administration turned instead to a program of cyber-sabotage against the North Korean missile program. How much did that help? Judging by recent tests, the North Korean missile program is still on track.

Perhaps that’s only to be expected. Against a determined adversary, no single action will do the trick, whether it involves interceptors, a computer virus, cruise missiles, financial sanctions, or “playing the China card,” which is not Washington’s to play. After one side makes its move, there will always be a countermove, and so on. The contest does not end. It simply evolves.

Let the volunteers handle this account. After the breakdown of the Six Party Talks, the Bush administration ran out of time and patience. In place of direct talks, an ad hoc diplomacy has flourished, involving American academics, former officials, and other experts, who periodically travel to Pyongyang or to other capitals in Asia or Europe to meet with North Korean Foreign Ministry personnel. The regulars on the Air Koryo circuit can report what they hear to the State Department, but they cannot represent the views of the administration.

At best, this process can inform American experts; at worst, it can mislead North Korean officials. One way to avoid that problem is to keep up a pattern of bilateral discussions between governments, even if they don’t seem terribly fruitful.

Tell the Intelligence Community to keep its mouth shut. A similar trouble occurs in the news media. As North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities have grown, the U.S. government has mostly stayed mum, keeping its public statements on the threat to a bare minimum. Here, too, non-government experts have filled the gap, providing reporters with widely varying ideas on the state of North Korea’s strategic programs. These include views of the North Koreans as much less capable than what we might conclude from the limited details that officials do offer. Among North Korea’s many weapons tests in 2016 were demonstrations evidently aimed at correcting the public record. If official Washington will state its assessments more fully – something it has done in the past – it follows that North Korea will have one less motive to take steps that the United States and its allies find provocative.

Accept the counsel of despair. After the Bush administration concluded that North Korea had a secret uranium enrichment program in 2002, it decided that the North Koreans were cheaters and withdrew from the Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton administration. After the Six Party Talks foundered on the question of verification in 2008, the Bush administration reached the same conclusion all over again. The Obama administration, too, was quick to distance itself from talks after the rapid undoing of the “Leap Day Deal” in 2012.

In the meantime, North Korea left the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, tested five nuclear devices, launched two satellites, and demonstrated a wide range of new missile technologies. On the other hand, it has yet to flight-test a mobile ICBM or to test a high-yield nuclear device.

The Trump administration comes along late in the game. But if it is willing to try its hand, it will have some distinct advantages over its predecessors. These include the ability to speak with a single voice in dealing with the North Koreans (unlike Bush) and the ability to keep Congress on its side through a difficult process (unlike Obama or Clinton). If it plays to these strengths, the administration’s success is still far from assured, but it has a shot. If nothing else, the mistakes it makes can be purely its own.

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Yawei Liu, Director of the China Program, The Carter Center

The United States is by no means a Northeast Asian country but it is “sitting” squarely at the center of this cluster of nations whose relationship has been affected by the past, distorted by the present, and made uncertain by the future. What is essential for the reduction of trust deficit among the countries is for Washington and China to reduce misperceptions of each other and build up their strategic trust.

Of all the emerging threats faced by both China and the United States, the biggest common threat in the near future may be Pyongyang. What Kim Jong-un has done since coming to power has alienated both Washington and Beijing so much that it is time for both to talk about collective action in addition to joint action at the UN.

Professor Andrew Nathan writes in his China’s Search for Security that the United States should not worry about the rise of China because the latter is sitting on three ticking time bombs: population decrease, environmental degradation, and water shortage. In fact, there is another “bomb” whose fuse has become shorter and shorter: Pyongyang. Twice in history, in 1895 and 1950 respectively, China’s response to what happened in Korea brought disasters upon itself. Many scholars and former government officials in China argue if China does not come up with a solution to once and for all resolve the DPRK issue, China, this nation of 1.4 billion people, can be kidnapped by a small country of 25 million under the leadership of a mad man.

More and more Chinese elites are doing the math on what the DPRK will mean for China strategically if it remains a viable nation versus what disadvantages will be brought upon China if Beijing stops bolstering this unpredictable and capricious nation. During this time, Washington and Seoul should chip in to help Chinese leadership realize it is in their common interest to pressure Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program or face crippling blows to its nation.

To prevent the DPRK from becoming a nuclear power, the United States, South Korea, and China should work together and synchronize their response measures. Synchronization hinges on the depth of mutual trust and this common trust can only be built on the thorough knowledge of each other’s strategic goals and interest calculation.

Koreans on both sides of the 38th Parallel, hostile to each other as they are now, probably all harbor the hope that one day a unified, democratic, and free Korea will emerge and become an anchor for peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia. Therefore, can the common trust be built on the unification issue among the three nations? The United States fought a bloody war to keep the country unified. China, which still sees unification with Taiwan as one of the most hallowed national goals, will easily understand this goal. Koreans dream of the day of unification. If all three countries are united in this quest for unification by history and national aspiration, they may agree this is a goal that, once realized, offers the final solution to the Korean Peninsula crisis. This is the mother of all solutions and earnest dialogue on this issue should be the most important, if not the first, measure toward building lasting confidence and indispensable consensus.

It is clear that at this point China has failed on two fronts in waging peace and sustaining stability in the Korean Peninsula. It has not been able to stop Pyongyang from stopping its well-designed and implemented plan to become a nuclear power; it has failed to offer any assurance to Seoul to not install THAAD. Seoul can justify its decision to install THAAD solely on the grounds of using the advanced weapon system to deter threats from Pyongyang. China needs to reassess its future policies toward the Koreas and it is time to put the eventual unification of the nations on the agenda.