When an individual is elected President of the United States, that person knows full well that they will face or pursue policies and issues which could ultimately define their presidency for better or for worse. For George W. Bush it was the war in Iraq. For Barack Obama it was Obamacare. For Donald Trump, escalating tensions with North Korea and their expanding nuclear program could prove to be his defining moment.
After decades of failed attempts to get North Korea to halt the development of its nuclear weapons program, there aren’t many options to choose from for Trump and his administration. They include: Increasing sanctions, pushing China to rein in North Korea, launching military action, and finally and arguably most controversial, meeting with Kim Jong-un himself. For the sake of argument, two of these options are already not viable. Increasing sanctions has proved to be ineffective, and military action could result in cataclysm for the region. This leaves Trump with pushing China to play a more active role, or meeting with Kim Jong-un himself.
Regardless of which he chooses, confronting Pyongyang will first necessitate Trump to demonstrate two key qualities. First, it will force the real estate mogul turned president to showcase his deal-making abilities that he so regularly touted on the campaign trail last year. Since he has taken office, the public has seen little to suggest that Trump has been hard at work wheeling and dealing his way toward making America great again. Making substantial progress on ending North Korea’s nuclear program would not only prove his negotiating skills, but also add much needed legitimacy to his administration, which continues to drop in public approval polls, by accomplishing something none of his predecessors were able to.
Second, it will force him to engage more with China, which is where the key to success lies. Being North Korea’s largest economic partner and ally in the region, China holds influence over Pyongyang, though it has been waning in recent years. Regardless of how Trump decides to act, including China in his plans will be imperative. That said, Trump should not expect China’s help to come for free. While neutralizing North Korea’s nuclear program is a shared goal between the U.S. and China, both nations still have a plethora of conflicting interests in the region. To include China, and ultimately increase any chances of making progress on North Korea, could require Trump to pull back on U.S. interests in the region to appease China.
Despite being slapped with crippling international sanctions, and being effectively cut off from the developed world, the Hermit Kingdom continues to forge forward with testing and expanding its nuclear capabilities. To offset this threat, the U.S. continues to offer security assurances to its regional ally South Korea through annual joint military drills, as well as the coming deployment of a THAAD missile defense system. While China has acknowledged that it understands South Korea’s need to prepare and defend itself from a possible attack by the North, they firmly disapprove of the defense system. This is due to fear that the system’s radar would be able to penetrate into Chinese territory. While the United States is unlikely to allow its security assurances to South Korea to be used as a bargaining chip, it is hypothetically possible, especially with Trump’s unpredictability and wild-card like decisions. If China respectfully disapproves of such a defense system, then it’s safe to assume that the North Koreans vehemently disapprove of it. That said, North Korea could encourage its only ally to persuade the United States to pull back or halt its assurances with South Korea as a pre-requisite to opening up a serious dialogue. This would allow China to not only help pave the way for possible progress with North Korea, but also potentially prevent, or at least delay the deployment of the THAAD defense system.
Another assurance potentially at stake involves Japan. North Korea’s most recent test on February 12 of an intermediate-range ballistic missile drew a joint statementcondemning the move from President Trump and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with Trump assuring Japan that it has the full support of the United States. However, China could choose to test how far the United States is willing to go for its historic ally by bringing the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands into the fray.
While both Japan and China claim ownership over these few islands in the East China Sea, China has begun construction of artificial islands in the region to further assert its claim. In response, the United States has often flexed its military might in the region by deploying fighter jets and nuclear capable submarines in the disputed region to remind China it is always watching and still the regional hegemon.
China could refuse to help the United States in certain capacities such as encouraging its unruly neighbor to participate in discussions, or it could refuse to further supporting and implementing sanctions against the regime. A plausible point of negotiation would be diminished U.S. presence, as China has previously voiced its opinion that the United States needs to stay out of the disputed region. If Trump decides to makes it a mission of his administration to find a way to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program, a guarantee that the United State will stay out of the disputed region would be high on China’s list of assurances.