President Trump has sent a stern warning to Xi Jinping that if China does not help us with North Korea, it will be bad for China and the U.S. will act on its own. Although sounding tough, the President may be dooming his meeting with Xi to just another round of failure on North Korea.
The past several years have demonstrated that the long-standing U.S. demand that China must play the central role in a strategy of expanding sanctions with North Korea may be misguided and unrealistic. While China has shared interests in resolving the crisis, there are clear limits to the pressure China is willing to apply. This reticence is due to China's fears of a refugee influx it cannot control if the North Korean regime collapses, and its fear of losing a buffer state on its border. China also benefits from North Korea distracting the U.S. presence in Asia, as China's own presence rises.
China's security interests are not going to change. What needs to change is how we work with China. Trump cannot just bully Xi to another nominal yes on North Korea. He needs to work with Xi's security interests, so that China's support for pressuring the renegade state becomes implemented, sustainable policy.
Washington has had two long-standing objectives: to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program, and to reunify the Korean peninsula.
President Trump should remain steadfast on the first and return North Korea to the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear power. An agreement that only freezes North Korean capabilities will not solve the crisis and will only, again, kick it down the road.
The U.S. is on firm ground demanding North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons. The U.S. unilaterally removed its nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991, and South Korea is a member in good standing of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. North Korea has reintroduced nuclear weapons onto the peninsula in defiance of regional and global obligations. A nuclear capable North Korea will leave open the dangerous alternatives of the U.S. reintroducing nuclear weapons onto the peninsula and/or South Korea and Japan developing their own nuclear arsenal. Despite President’s Trump’s own misplaced musings, U.S. and global security continue to be best served by fewer nuclear weapons at the disposal of dispersed, unpredictable leaders. Kim Jung Un is at the top of that list.
But where the U.S. should show flexibility is on reunification. This goal has threatened China’s interest of a buffer state on its border and has inhibited Chinese cooperation on the imminent North Korea threat. Furthermore, unification is also being questioned within South Korea, particularly among the younger generation who are concerned about the economic sacrifice that may be required by the much more affluent South.
While we cannot live with a nuclear-capable Kim regime, the question is whether we can live with a non-nuclear Kim regime on a divided peninsula. If the answer is yes, policy options open up to achieve that goal with Chinese cooperation.
Since the North Korea crisis first moved to the top of the U.S. agenda in the 1990s, North Korea has focused on the U.S. providing incentives in return for the end of its nuclear program -- food aid, energy aid, security guarantees, and a peace agreement to replace the 1953 truce. Providing these incentives has received skeptical reception in the U.S. given North Korea’s track record of broken agreements, proliferation, and human rights abuses.
But, since 1994, China’s economic and security prowess in the region has greatly expanded, including its support for North Korea after the Soviet Union collapsed. The responsibility should shift to China to provide the incentives. It has a lot to offer: security guarantees, by strengthening its 1961 mutual assistance agreement; more investment in North Korean industry and infrastructure; membership in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; and integration into its One Belt One Road initiative, among others.
If more sanctions are needed, China’s leverage may be better played by focusing on North Korea’s illicit economy, a major source of cash flow and an area where some Chinese entities have been implicated -- proliferation, drug trafficking, human trafficking, cyber bank robberies -- as opposed to its legitimate economy. Cracking down on illicit activities requires commitment, financial resources, international support, all of which China can help deliver. Furthermore, North Korea’s legitimate economic development will be a cornerstone of a more stable, nuclear free North Korea and, in the short term, will not offset the loss of cash flow from its illicit practices.
Stopping a determined nation from developing nuclear weapons is difficult. Reversing established capabilities is even harder. But it has been done. To move North Korea into the success column, Trump needs to ensure Xi Jinping recognizes North Korea is a U.S. priority, that we are willing to work with China’s security interests, and that the U.S. will keep its eye on the ball and not blink.
Lori Esposito Murray is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She most recently held the distinguished chair for national security at the U.S. Naval Academy. She served as special advisor to the president on the Chemical Weapons Convention and is also a former assistant director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency at the State Department. The views expressed are her own.