President Donald J. Trump made his first official visit to the Asia-Pacific in early November 2017. Top on his agenda were the North Korea problem and U.S. trade with the region; for both issues, the president’s most important meetings would be with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping.
After the handshakes and formal dinners, Trump got an early “Christmas gift” of $250 billion in Chinese contracts to purchase U.S. goods (the lion share of his acclaimed $300 billion harvest from this trip), a Chinese agreement to allow foreign (especially U.S.) banking and financial companies to do business with Chinese people (rather than the Chinese government), and reassurance that Beijing would stand with the United States in achieving denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. On North Korea, the two sides agreed on “working toward a solution through dialogue and negotiation” on North Korea (Trump’s statement in Beijing, but reading between the lines, it echoes China’s position of no use of military force).
While the trade deals gave Trump much to celebrate, Beijing’s playbook on the North Korea problem is hard for Washington to follow. However, although the Trump team dismissed previous administrations’ approaches on North Korea, it has not crafted a workable solution so far and there is no reason to expect a head-on “maximum pressure campaign” will change North Korea’s behavior. In the face of this unforgiving predicament, Washington may find it in the U.S. interest to take the Chinese prescription.
Getting Out of the North Korea Problem
The Chinese have insisted all along that North Korea is a U.S. problem; and only the United States can fix it. Their main reasons are two-fold: first, while most of the participants of the Korean War have moved on, the United States has continued a state of war with North Korea since the signing of the Armistice in 1953; and second, the United States does not recognize the North Korean government, hence denying North Korea’s normal nationhood.
Beijing also argues that North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is the offspring of the unending mutual animosity between the United States and North Korea; as long as this fundamental problem continues, U.S. efforts on North Korea denuclearization will be in vain. Likewise, as the other half of this troubled couple, the United States has no choice but to be the main bearer of North Korea’s provocations.
From the above points comes the Chinese prescription: as the first course of action, the United States should resolve the problem by ending the Korean War with a peace treaty and remove the fundamental threat to North Korea by establishing normal relations with the Hermit Kingdom.
Americans surely find the Chinese solution outrageous. Why should the United States make peace with the North Korea regime instead of waiting for its eventual collapse? Why should the United States reward the Kim regime with a normal relationship while it brutalizes its own people, engages in terrorism, international crime, proliferation of missile and nuclear technology, and many other bad things?
These questions are misinformed. First of all, the United States has been waiting for the collapse of North Korea for well over 60 years to no avail; now that North Korea is ruled by a young Kim, Washington’s wait has no end in sight.
Second, the normalization of relations between nations is not a reward, but the standard practice of diplomacy. Recognition of a government is not an endorsement of its conduct. The United States can recognize and work with China and Vietnam; but Washington sometimes seems to forget that Pyongyang, Beijing, and Hanoi are all authoritarian regimes; their differences are in degree but not in kind.
Looking at this issue from a different perspective, decoupling the United States from the problem has many benefits. With the removal of the mutual animosity, North Korea can no longer use the United States as an excuse for its nuclear weapons development. North Korea’s existing nuclear capability is still a problem, but the United States does not have to be the only one to call the shots (as it has been so far). A burden-free United States can support China’s lead to pursue a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula in the long run with much strategic flexibility.
Getting Off the Treadmill
The Chinese have also told Americans that U.S. pressure cannot change North Korea’s behavior. But putting pressure on foreign countries is a favorite instrument in the U.S. foreign policy toolbox. Getting rid of it is a hard sell for Americans.
U.S. pressure on North Korea largely takes two paths: economic sanctions and military show of force. Over the decades, the United States has staged numerous shows of military force targeting North Korea and imposed extensive economic sanctions against the Kim regime. Every time North Korea makes new provocations, Americans call for harsher pressures and Washington instinctively complies.
The military and economic measures are intended to scale down North Korea’s provocations, dry up its resources for the nuclear program, and force North Korea to return to the negotiation table. Neither approach, however, has worked.
U.S. leaders understand the shortfalls, but they cannot stand idle in the face of North Korea provocations. Imposing pressures makes them feel morally dignified. But U.S. leaders should see that applying economic sanctions and military show of force are like getting themselves on a treadmill — it gets them worked up, but takes them nowhere.
The irony is that Washington has applied these pressures again and again for decades and is still hoping for different results. This, as the famous saying goes, is the definition of insanity. It is high time the United States changed course.
Misunderstanding the China Factor
Many U.S. analysts blindly call for China to do more on the North Korea problem. Make no mistake, China does not like North Korea either! But for their own self-interest, Chinese leaders have no reason to solve the North Korea problem for the United States.
First, China and North Korea are neighbors but, as the ancient Indian wise man Kautilya puts it, they are natural enemies. Indeed, the Chinese and Koreans have no lack of conflicts over the centuries. They also have simmering territorial disputes on land and at sea. The reason North Korea has not been at China’s throat is because the United States stands in the middle. Chinese understand that Americans come and go; China and North Korea are forever neighbors. The Chinese have no reason to jeopardize their relations with their neighbor for an intruder from afar.
Second, China’s priority in the Korean Peninsula is preserving stability and preventing war. Denuclearization is a secondary issue. As long as the United States remains the primary target of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, China has no urgency to upgrade its priority on denuclearization at this point.
Third, China has no interest to follow the United States to denounce the Kim regime, because this act will come back to undermine the Chinese government’s legitimacy.
Fourth, China has no strategic trust in the United States. Chinese National Defense White Papers have repeatedly singled out the United States as an external threat to China. The Taiwan issue, as the Chinese put it, is a constant reminder of the “U.S. meddling in China’s internal affairs.” The strategic rebalance of the Obama administration was perceived by the Chinese as a U.S. attempt to “box China in.” At this moment, the Chinese suspect that Trump’s reference to the “Indo-Pacific” may be an expanded version of the strategic rebalance, highlighting the U.S. intent to upgrade India’s role in counterbalancing China. With these troubling considerations, how can one expect China to ask North Korea to ease its concerns with the United States and give up its nuclear weapons unconditionally?
Fifth, American observers should bear in mind that China developed its nuclear weapons more than 50 years ago for the same reasons confronting North Korea today. It is not difficult to see why China’s condemnation of North Korea’s nuclear tests always look pale and guarded.
Sixth, many argue that China is the largest trading partner of North Korea and maintains life support for the country. But few see that North Korea does not rely on its trade with China for its nuclear weapons program.
The list of misinformed views on China and its role on the North Korea problem can go on and on. Simply put, China can help to set the stage for the United States and North Korea to conduct their diplomacy, but not to help the United States to solve the problem. The United States should have no illusions otherwise.
Off to a Fresh Start
At this writing, China is already setting the stage for the United States to start a new round of efforts on the North Korea problem. Xi has sent his special envoy to Pyongyang, making clear China’s approach moving forward. China has also consolidated its position with Russia and got South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in on board. In a situation like this, Washington should, in the Chinese words, “push the boat along the current” (顺水推舟) and get a renewed start on tackling its North Korea problem.
As a start, bring North Korea to the negotiation table without denuclearization as a precondition. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was right on target to make this offer during his remarks at the December 12 Atlantic Council-Korean Foundation Forum. Denuclearization is a long-term goal; making it a precondition for negotiation will only keep the United States and North Korea in deadlock. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster is also right that “now is not the time to talk.” But when the time comes, this should be the way to go.
Second, meet with North Korea directly. There is no need to bring any other party into the negotiation, they have different interests and agendas and will only complicate the negotiation. Moreover, getting other parties into the negotiation rests on the expectation that they will share the responsibilities of holding North Korea accountable afterwards. This expectation may not stand. The six-power agreement with Iran is a prime example — when Iran allegedly violates the agreement, the United States is the only one to respond.
Third, while anything is open for talks, the first order of business should be to put an official end to the Korean War and normalize the two nations’ relations.
Although China has asked the United States to solve the North Korea problem the Chinese way, Beijing has many reasons to believe that Washington will not follow its prescriptions. For one, the United States simply does not like North Korea; its ideology stands in the way of diplomacy; and domestic opposition to any “soft landing” on the North Korea problem is almost insurmountable. For another, many in the United States do not like China either; they are not happy to see the United States follow China’s lead. But the emerging new realities in the Korean Peninsula (or Northeast Asia writ large) may compel the United States to do so anyway. Solving the North Korea problem the Chinese way at this point may serve U.S. interests, after all.
David Lai, Ph.D., is Research Professor of Asian Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army War College, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.