U.S. responses to the recent North Korean nuclear and rocket tests will upset a supposed partner against Pyongyang’s weapons development — China.
South Korea’s new efforts to toughen missile defense, and the U.S. sanctions legislation that is moving swiftly through Congress could hurt Chinese interests from both directions. The missile defense system could be used against them, and the U.S. sanctions could hit Chinese companies that trade with North Korea.
The U.S. and China both oppose North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and have characterized it as an issue they cooperate on, even though China is an old ally of the North. But a Jan. 6 underground nuclear explosion and Sunday’s rocket launch that world leaders called a test of ballistic missile technology, have exposed stark differences between Washington and Beijing on how to deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s provocations.
Beijing is reluctant to impose stiff economic sanctions, fearing a collapse in North Korea’s economy and a flight of refugees across the border into China. But even if China and the U.N. Security Council can’t agree on the kind of tough measures that Washington wants, the U.S. can act on its own to pressure Pyongyang.
For some time, the U.S. has been nudging its close ally South Korea toward allowing the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, missile defense system on its soil. Seoul, which hosts 28,500 U.S. forces, has been reluctant to initiate talks on the system, fearing it might hurt its improving relations with Beijing. But soon after North Korea launched a rocket carrying an Earth observation satellite into space on Sunday, the U.S. and South Korea announced they were looking into a possible joint THAAD deployment.
“We would like to see this move as quickly as possible,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters Monday. He said consultations would begin within days. Cook said a THAAD deployment would be directed solely at North Korea and no other country should be concerned. But critics including Theodore Postol, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have said the system could help U.S. radar spot missiles from China.
China was quick to make its displeasure known. In a commentary on Monday, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said a deployment could trigger a regional arms race. “It would be unwise for the United States to act arbitrarily in disregard of international opposition just to serve its own interests of carrying out its ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy,” the commentary said, referring to President Barack Obama’s effort to increase the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific, in part to counter the rise of China.
On the economic front, the U.S. sanctions legislation could also cause discomfort in Beijing, which is North Korea’s main trading partner and source of economic support. Wednesday the Senate is expected to pass the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. That legislation aims to expand and tighten economic restrictions to block the Kim regime’s access to hard currency, targeting both North Korean entities and companies in other countries that deal with them, such as China.
Last month the House passed a version of the bill, amid frustration that U.S. policy has failed to stop Pyongyang’s progress en route to developing a nuclear-tipped missile that could reach America. The bill has strong bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress. The legislation requires an investigation and then imposition of sanctions on any person that “knowingly” engages in prohibited activities, ranging from importing weapons technology to “cyber terrorism.” In the Senate version, trading precious metals or coal that is linked to North Korea’s ruling party or armed forces is also forbidden. The executive branch would have some discretion over implementation of the legislation if it is ultimately signed into law by Obama.
Marcus Noland, an expert on North Korea at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said that measure could implicate state-owned Chinese companies which trade with North Korea. He said such companies may not do a lot of business in the U.S., but blacklisting would cause diplomatic problems with China. He added that China might even try to challenge such an action by the U.S. at the World Trade Organization.
Still, the legislation would raise the stakes, as the U.S. and China, which fought on oppose sides in the 1950-53 Korean War, grapple with a North Korea which appears impervious to diplomatic pressure and intent on building a bigger nuclear arsenal.
Joseph DeThomas, a former senior State Department official who advised on Iran and North Korea, played down expectations that new U.S. sanctions would have a dramatic impact. The secretive nature of North Korea’s business dealings and its isolation from the world economy mean that hard evidence of sanctions violations is scarce, and when such evidence is discovered, it must then pass a rigorous, internal U.S. government review, he said.
“There are a lot of Chinese chips on the table here,” said DeThomas, now Professor of International Affairs at Pennsylvania State University. “Is there a way for the U.S. and China to act together to deal with the North Korea problem or are we heading toward a parting of the ways which will pose a lot of risks to both sides?”
The world awaits that answer.