It’s been an odd few weeks on the Korean peninsula. Many blame North Korean military parades and the recent missile test. Though such events may be the primary causes for the current tensions, they are fairly commonplace in Pyongyang.
Instead, the United States and its new administration is the new factor in the mix. The Trump administration’s moves may have deterred North Korea from conducting a sixth nuclear test for now. And reports from the China-North Korea border suggest that Chinese authorities are at least enforcing sanctions on North Korea to some degree, causing concern in Pyongyang.
But the historical pattern suggests that Chinese enforcement of sanctions on North Korea is often temporary. President Trump’s statement that he has “great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea” may be premature. China’s strategic interest in maintaining status quo remains the same. Overall, American policy moves and signals on Korea over the past few weeks may have done more harm than good for U.S. policy objectives in the long run.
Two steps forward…
Initial U.S. language in the current crisis (if we can call it that), alluding to possible strikes should the north conduct a sixth nuclear test, had even hardliners in North Korea policy concerned. The apparent move to send the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier, to waters near the Korean peninsula, looked like a tangible escalation.
Signaling by the United States is not a new phenomenon. After North Korea’s nuclear test in September 2016, the U.S. flew B-1 bombers over South Korea as a message to North Korea that the U.S. can and will hit back if need be. But combined with the new tone from the U.S. administration, the bigger picture was one of escalation.
In the short run, this might all have worked in America’s favor. The fact that preparations looked to be under way for a nuclear test that didn’t happen suggests that perhaps North Korea blinked in the standoff.
…And two steps back?
The long-run impact of the Trump administration’s moves, however, is less clear, primarily for two reasons.
First, the bluff with the USS Carl Vinson did immense damage to the U.S. reputation in South Korea. Combined with Trump’s remarks about Korea as a historical “part of China,” and it almost looks impressive how many classical “don’ts” the administration managed to cram into only a few days.
The potential consequences are obvious. North Korea may take future U.S. moves and threats of action less seriously, knowing that the administration has already taken a big-time bluff measure once. Or, perhaps more dangerously, they may believe that the U.S. is bluffing even when the administration is in fact prepared to take real and potentially catastrophic action to strike back at North Korea.
The damage is also great to the U.S. relationship with South Korea, one of its most important allies in East Asia. In the long run, the South Korean general public and policymakers will now have to question, with good reason, whether the U.S. is really committed to concrete action in its alliance with South Korea.
This rift alone is a victory for North Korea. Driving wedges into the U.S.-South Korea alliance obviously lies in Pyongyang’s interest. By escalating tensions and hoping that the U.S. will back down, the North Korean regime probably takes into account the opportunity to cause doubt among South Koreans whether the U.S. will really come to its aid in the event of a crisis.
Second, Trump’s trust that China can “take care” of North Korea may in fact signal a tilt toward the opposite end of the spectrum from the threat of preemptive strikes. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, Trump said he learned how complicated the nature of China-North Korea relations are after a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping:
“He said they hit it off during their first discussion. Mr. Trump said he told his Chinese counterpart he believed Beijing could easily take care of the North Korea threat. Mr. Xi then explained the history of China and Korea, Mr. Trump said.
“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Mr. Trump recounted. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power” over North Korea,” he said. “But it’s not what you would think.”
It is by no means clear precisely how one should interpret these statements. Moreover, subsequent tweets have struck a slightly harsher line. An understanding of the complicated nature of Chinese-North Korean relations is undoubtedly a good thing. But President Trump would do well to remember China’s history of lax sanctions enforcement. China’s much discussed imports of North Korean coal, for example, have historically waxed and waned for a wide range of reasons – some domestic to China’s economy – but rarely conformed precisely with sanctions.
After North Korea’s two nuclear tests in 2016, for example, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2270, effectively banning mineral imports from North Korea, with the exception of those whose proceeds went toward “humanitarian purposes.” This latter provision turned out to be a gigantic loophole. After imports dropped temporarily, August 2016 saw the largest imports of North Korean coal by China ever recorded for a single month. Earlier this year, China did announce a ban on North Korean coal imports, but this came at the same time as China downsized imports from other coal producing countries as well. China has often tightened coal imports from North Korea temporarily, perhaps to signal compliance with sanctions, only to once again increase imports later on.
In other words, Chinese trade policies vis-à-vis North Korea are controlled by a multitude of factors other than international diplomatic agreements. The news coming from Pyongyang recently that fuel prices have spiked in the capital may be a sign that China is tightening oil exports to North Korea, but it is too early to tell.
At the end of the day, North Korea remains a strategic asset to China as a buffer between itself and South Korea. The Trump administration would do well to remember just how much strategic value China places in maintaining the status quo on the Korean peninsula.
Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein is an associate scholar with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and co-editor of North Korean Economy Watch.