North Korea’s nuclear ambitions seem unstoppable. The Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” has failed and there are growing calls for President Donald Trump to reach out directly to Pyongyang. Although bilateral dialogue may result in a temporary freeze on North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for various concessions, it will not lead to the country’s denuclearization. Pyongyang’s negotiating track record shows that it’s always ready to cheat, stall, and make unreasonable demands. The ominous reality is that North Korea is determined to be recognized as a nuclear power.
The only way to push Pyongyang to give up what it sees as a vital tool for survival is to squeeze the only other thing keeping the Kim regime alive — its economic lifeline through China. The million-dollar question is how to get Beijing on board with such a task. As North Korea’s only patron and trade partner of consequence, China has long resisted fully cracking down on Pyongyang, fearing its neighbor’s collapse will bring immediate instability along its border and harm its long-term strategic interests with the loss of a buffer state and the rise of a unified Korean Peninsula under a pro-U.S. government. The Trump administration’s most urgent task, therefore, is to persuade Chinese President Xi Jinping that Beijing’s short- and long-term strategic interests are better served by swiftly cracking down on North Korea’s economic activities to force Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
And getting China on board with such a plan will not be achieved by poking it in the eye, like Trump initially tried with the “One China” policy debacle, or by complaining that the Chinese are not doing enough. Rather, the Trump administration must open Beijing’s eyes to the ways the North Korean status quo, even if it doesn’t threaten China directly, is already jeopardizing its regional interests.
Chinese officials have long insisted that they do not have as much influence over their North Korean counterparts as outside observers would like to believe. Pyongyang’s willingness to engage in a steady stream of nuclear and missile tests in recent years despite Beijing’s objections does seem to indicate that North Korea, especially since Kim Jong Un’s rise, has been calling its own shots.
Nevertheless, Beijing holds an ultimate source of leverage that could be used to push North Korea to denuclearize: the ability to shut down the North Korean economy. North Korea’s economic lifeline runs through China, with a vast majority of its trade, both licit and illicit, flowing through Chinese territory. China is by far North Korea’s largest trading partner, accounting for about 90 percent of North Korea’s total trade volume, or $5.7 billion in 2015. China is also North Korea’s primary provider of critical commodities, including oil and steel products. Finally, China serves as North Korea’s door to the outside world.
Pyongyang’s illegal networks that help it evade sanctions and facilitate its cash flow are often routed through China, managed by North Koreans working for their state along with opportunistic Chinese intermediaries. Although there are signs that Beijing has taken a harder line in recent months toward North Korea by pausing its purchase of North Korean coal, and cracking down on Chinese entities that aid Pyongyang’s illicit activities, there is still much more it could do to squeeze North Korea, given the depth of their economic ties.
China, thus far, has refused to use the full extent of its unique leverage against North Korea because of its well-known aversion to instability, its fears of a reunified Korean Peninsula, and its general distaste for regime change, which runs counter to its foreign-policy mantra of noninterference. To get Beijing to wield the power it has, China’s top leaders must be convinced that their interests are better served not by preserving the status quo but by quickly sending the message to Pyongyang that it cannot have both nuclear weapons and economic sustenance — and that the latter will truly be severed unless the former is relinquished.
Trump and his deputies can make this argument to their Chinese counterparts by pointing out that the growing North Korean nuclear threat is driving China’s neighbors, South Korea and Japan, to strengthen their military capabilities in ways that are not in China’s long-term strategic interests. South Korea’s agreement with the United States last year to deploy the anti-ballistic missile system known as THAAD is a case in point. After months of debate, Seoul finally agreed to deploy THAAD following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, despite vehement threats of economic and political retaliation from Beijing. The fact that Seoul was willing to alienate China, its biggest trading partner, and to weather the ensuing economic fallout is indicative of the fact that South Korean leaders were motivated by something more important than economics — their national security.
North Korea’s growing nuclear threat also served as an important impetus for the Japanese government’s reinterpretation of Article 9 of the country’s constitution in 2014, which expanded the role of the Japan Self-Defense Forces. And the North Korean threat continues to serve as ammunition for those who seek to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution and to upgrade its military capabilities. Recent reports indicate that Japan is also considering deploying THAAD. And while THAAD and the reinterpretation of Article 9 are not necessarily directed toward China, Beijing has opposed these developments because they have real implications for China’s military capabilities. The Trump administration should reason with Xi that coddling North Korea will only strengthen the voices of hard-liners in South Korea and Japan and result in changes that are not in China’s strategic interests.
The United States should also point out that North Korea will only be more emboldened as its nuclear capabilities grow, tempting the Kim regime to engage in regional provocations with a newfound confidence. Such actions would increase instability in China’s neighborhood — the last thing Beijing wants. Trump’s team must emphasize to China that in spite of Trump’s campaign rhetoric on alliances, the United States is bound by its treaties to aid South Korea and Japan in the case of an attack. And any conflict with North Korea would increase the U.S. military presence and activities in the region, which, again, is not in China’s strategic interests.
One final point to make is that the Kim regime is not in a good place, with an unprecedented number of executions and defections of high-level North Korean officials. Kim’s rule may collapse due to internal events, without any outside probing and in spite of China’s soft-handed approach. It is much better for China to act in advance, before such a crisis strikes, to push for North Korea’s denuclearization while working out a plan to integrate North Korea into the region.
The time is ripe to make the case to China to crack down on the Kim regime. Beijing is already extremely frustrated with North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests, and the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, who reportedly had close ties with China. And now that the “One China” policy standoff has finally been put to rest, Chinese leaders are eager to get on a good footing with the new U.S. administration.
Trump must use the start of his new relationship with Xi to bring North Korea to the top of the bilateral agenda and convince the Chinese leadership that Beijing’s interests are truly better served by using its unique leverage over North Korea. Although the recent suspension of North Korean coal imports is a promising sign, China will need to be persuaded to send Pyongyang an ultimatum: nuclear weapons or economic survival.