North Korea’s nuclear program has been a big headache for the US for decades. Different administrations have tried to denuclearize it but all failed. President Donald Trump is now pledging a far tougher approach, which is aimed at not only North Korea but also China, its neighboring ally and economic provider.
On several occasions, America’s new president has condemned North Korea’s belligerent behavior and accused China of doing very little to stop it. During an Asian tour last month, his secretary of state Rex Tillerson stated that Washington’s diplomatic and other efforts to denuclearize Pyongyang over the past 20 years had failed.
In a recent interview with The Financial Times, Trump went further, issuing an ultimatum to both Beijing and Pyongyang that “if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will”.
A senior White House official warned on Tuesday in a briefing on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit that the North Korea threat “is now urgent”, stressing: “The clock has now run out and all options are on the table for us.”
When confirming Pyongyang’s launch of “yet another intermediate-range ballistic missile” on Wednesday, Tillerson simply said his country “has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.” This terse statement and its wording indicate that the Trump administration no longer wants merely to talk about the nuclear-armed country but act against it.
In many ways, the US administration’s North Korea posture is understandable.
The nuclear-armed country is a real security threat to the US, and the Trump government is right to be serious about it. In a separate interview, K.T. McFarland, the White House’s deputy national security adviser, told The Financial Times, “There is a real possibility that North Korea will be able to hit the US with a nuclear-armed missile by the end of the first Trump term.”
In fact, an unstable and aggressive regime in Pyongyang with huge missile and nuclear capabilities is the most imminent and prominent threat to not only the US and its regional allies but also Asia and the world at large.
America’s new administration is also correct to recognize that Washington’s diplomacy, sanctions and other efforts to prevent Pyongyang’s weaponization program has so far failed. Not only have North Korea’s ballistic-missile and nuclear-weapons programs not stopped, they have proliferated alarmingly.
One of the failures is the United States’ inability to leverage China. A key reason former president Bill Clinton reversed a key campaign pledge by granting China most-favored-nation trade status in 1993 and the years after was the belief that Beijing could help prevent Pyongyang’s proliferation of nuclear weapons. The present reality proves the contrary.
China always stresses that it has done its part and that the US and other countries have no right to hold it responsible for its problematic neighbor. Some China watchers argue – and Beijing also claims – that it has does not have as much on the hermit kingdom as Trump believes.
Politically and diplomatically, this is perhaps true. Under Kim Jong-un’s rule in Pyongyang, the relationship between the two communist allies, once described as “as close as lips and teeth”, is falling apart. Unlike his grandfather and father, the 33-year-old dictator is distrustful of Beijing and, consequently, Chinese leaders no longer have a big and positive influence over Pyongyang’s policy directions, as they did during the reigns of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il.
Yet as a Trump administration official pointed out in Tuesday’s briefing, China’s economic leverage on Pyongyang “is considerable”, with nearly 90% of North Korea’s external trade being with its giant neighbor.
There is no way for the recalcitrant regime to survive without China’s finance, food and fuel. Kim Jong-un would likely rethink his aggression should Beijing publicly and determinedly send out an ultimatum that said, “Stop your nuclear program or risk the survival of your regime.” If the young despot remained stubborn, Beijing could bring his totalitarian rule to its knees by cutting most or all of its economic lifeline.
But for many different reasons, the authoritarian leadership in Beijing has been – and likely remains – unwilling to take such an aggressive measure. Chief among these is its fear that the Kim regime’s collapse would result in the emergence of a pro-US, united and democratic Korea on its doorstep. This is also the key reason the Kim regime is increasingly provoking not only the US but also China.
The missile launch on the eve of the first face-to-face meeting between Trump and his Chinese counterpart in Florida was unmistakably aimed at both Washington and Beijing.
For Trump, his conviction that “China has great influence over North Korea” but is reluctant to tighten the screws on the latter is the rationale behind his warning that Washington will act alone if Beijing does not toughen its stance against the pariah state.
The question is whether Xi and his comrades in Beijing are listening.
Trump’s tough talk is primarily aimed at piling pressure on Beijing to take a harder line against Pyongyang. Any chance of success depends significantly on how serious the US commander-in-chief is in sending out the ultimatum.
While hosting Xi, Trump must firmly and clearly tell his guest that his ultimatum of unilateral and military action is not an attempt to seek concessions from Beijing on trade or other key issues but is genuinely motivated by an imminent threat to the US, the region and the globe.
More important, he must convince the Chinese leader that Beijing’s short- and long-term strategic interests are better served by a denuclearized, peaceful and prosperous Korean Peninsula, and the best way to achieve this is an economic crackdown on Pyongyang by Beijing, forcing it to give up its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.
A point that the Trump administration must highlight to persuade China is that its communist ally’s missile and nuclear threat will push South Korea and Japan to deepen their defense cooperation with their American ally and that such a deepening is not in China’s strategic interests.
Faced with a growing threat from its hostile northern neighbor, Seoul has already accelerated deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system, despite stringent threats of economic retaliation from China, its biggest trading partner. Any further aggressive behavior by Pyongyang will likely force Tokyo as well to install this US-operated anti-missile shield, which China views as a threat to its own ballistic missiles.
If Trump fails to convince China that it has much more to lose than to gain by continuing to nourish its belligerent ally, can – and more important, should – the US act unilaterally and militarily to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear threat as he warned?
The answer is likely no. All would lose from a military conflict. It would cause devastating damage to South Korea, Japan, the US and the region. For instance, Pyongyang would likely retaliate for a pre-emptive strike by firing its missiles at Seoul, turning South Korea’s 10-million-population capital into “a sea of fire and a pile of ashes”, as Kim Jong-un has threatened.
Making sure Beijing thoroughly implements the United Nations sanctions and resolutions on Pyongyang and carries out secondary sanctions on Chinese companies and individuals doing business with the hermit kingdom are some of the feasible ways to tackle the North Korea problem.
Another is making clear to Beijing that Washington is truly committed to protecting South Korea and Japan, its regional key allies, against any threat. Firmly reiterating that Beijing’s economic retaliation against Seoul for its decision to install the THAAD system is disturbing and that, instead of punishing Seoul for deploying the missile defense system, Beijing should look into South Korea’s reasons for wanting the shield might also make China rethink its North Korea posture.
Of course, all of this is much easier said than done. North Korea is a complex issue. It is also only one of many major matters over which the Trump administration and the Chinese leadership are worlds apart. What is more, in his first months in the White House, Trump is facing many unresolved problems both domestically and internationally, with some of these being of his own making.
If the new US president wants to better deal on the North Korea problem and other geopolitical issues, such as the South China Sea, he must, among other things, work more closely with his country’s traditional allies and key partners. He, or the United States, cannot fix them alone.