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Foreign Policy

China’s Opportunity to Lead on North Korea

Apr 04 , 2018
  • Sampson Oppedisano

    Executive Assistant to the Dean, The Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy


The desire for a diplomatic, peaceful solution to the ongoing tensions on the Korean Peninsula is a coveted aspiration that most recent U.S. presidents have tried to address during their time in office. However, North Korea continues to be one of the largest foreign policy conundrums that a president can expect to deal with, and Donald Trump is no exception.

As have previous administrations, Trump’s has slapped North Korea with increasingly tough sanctions in an effort to halt, or at the very least, slow the country’s continued efforts to advance its nuclear weapons program and threaten the U.S. homeland. Trump has managed some success in strong arming China, North Korea’s close  ally, into enforcing these sanctions. However, during Trump’s tenure in office, tensions on the Korean Peninsula have grown tremendously and have reached unprecedented levels. This is in part due to an escalating exchange of heated rhetoric between Kim Jong Un and Trump.

Despite all attempts, North Korea has continued to prove it is a master of resiliency when it comes to ensuring the survival of its regime. A recent sanctions report put out by the United Nations in February indicates that North Korea has been supplying Syria with both missile technology and chemical weapons supplies in order to continue to raise hard cash.

However, it seems North Korea is increasingly a thorn in the side of its regional neighbor, China, with sanctions increasingly hurting or targeting Chinese businesses. Furthermore, the United States has imposed “secondary sanctions” against various Chinese businesses, despite Beijing claiming that it is fully complying and cooperating with sanctions against North Korea. China, who has grown increasingly impatient with North Korea and its onslaught of missile tests, and who would be greatly impacted by any military conflict on the peninsula, has increasingly called for a diplomatic solution. Now, it seems there is an opportunity for such diplomacy, and China can and should play a vital role.

Recently, Kim Jong Un conveyed to a visiting South Korean delegation his desire to speak with Donald Trump. Since then, a meeting between both leaders has been tentatively set for May. While there is skepticism amongst many, especially senior officials about if North Korea will give up its nuclear program, China has already given its praise that preparations for an opening of dialogue is underway as it has regularly called for a diplomatic solution.

In the most recent developments, Kim Jong Un made a surprise two-day visit to China where he met with Xi Jinping. In doing so, Kim has flexed his own diplomatic artillery, showing that he does have an influential ally in the region. This is a crucial moment for China to exert its influence in these talks to ensure a peaceful outcome. However, like many, China should remain cautiously optimistic, about the potential outcome of the meeting.

Firstly, the deeply entrenched, historic mistrust that has been brewed over that time between North Korea and the United States will not be diluted easily. As seen during the Bush Administration, North Korea has a notorious past of agreeing to halt its pursuit of nuclear weapons, only then to have it revealed that they were still very actively pursuing them. It was John Bolton, Bush’s then undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and now Trump’s new Security Advisor, who very eagerly pushed for a way to prevent any agreement, framework, or treaty to come about between the U.S. and North Korea during this time.

John Bolton’s very recent return to the forefront of politics is now another reason for China to be cautiously optimistic. Short of North Korea outright agreeing to dismantle its nuclear program and allowing in outside inspectors such as the IAEA, Bolton’s notoriously hawkish views on security and foreign policy, especially advocating for the use of military force against countries like North Korea and Iran, could jeopardize the chance for productive talks between the U.S. and North Korea.

Finally, and most likely to be the reason for any failed talks, is that North Korea will advocate for extreme concessions upfront on the U.S.’ end. These could include security assurances, major sanction relief, and less military presence on the peninsula itself. To this extent it is more than likely that the United States, especially under a Trump administration, will not grant such concessions unless it were to oversee in some way the entire dismantling of the regime’s nuclear program first.

To China, North Korea has remained, though a thorn in its side at points, a check against Western powers in the region, namely the United States. In turn, the United States is its ever interdependent trade partner and thus, China cannot afford to let this relationship be damaged. China needs to exert its influence in these talks and encourage a diplomatic solution to what is one of foreign policies greatest conundrums, as it has just as much to lose if talks fail and tensions escalate. As with climate change, this is also a valuable opportunity for China to continue to prove its desire to become more involved in global crises and continue to showcase its “peaceful rise” in the global community.

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