New uncertainties revolving around the North Korea issue have arisen after the second Trump-Kim summit. Up till now, both the US and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) have avoided engaging with each other officially: North Korea’s attitude towards reopening any form of dialogue with the US is not positive, while the US has hardened its position on maintaining sanctions until North Korea meets the CVID standard — complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement. The US is also strengthening pressure against the DPRK by sending a Coast Guard cutter into the East China Sea to carry out enforcement against “illicit ship-to-ship transfers that violate North Korea sanctions.” What, then, are the prospects for the North Korea issue after almost one year of US-North Korea détente? What implications are there for China based on a comprehensive assessment of Chinese interests in the near and longer term? These are serious questions to answer at the current junction in North Korean affairs.
Considering the historical and structural factors affecting the North Korea issue, sadly the most likely outcome is that a long-lasting stalemate will persist, with negotiations and tensions alternating before any form of final settlement can be reached. From the US side, it’s politically risky to reach any deal without a comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea. Sanctions are the most important leverage the US has, since dialogue has its limits and will be unlikely to achieve such a goal on their own. North Korea, on the other hand, will not easily abandon its entire nuclear weapons program, which is certainly a guarantee of its regime survival. Pyongyang can at least endure a long stalemate if a relatively stable relationship can be maintained with the US as negotiations continue. Research also shows that the current sanctions will not be last straw for the DPRK’s economy, since their only impact is on North Korea’s trade and foreign reserve — other aspects of the North Korean economy, such as domestic production and industrial development, as well as “grey market” which allows more economic freedom, have been kept almost intact. This means sanctions per se are not enough for the DPRK to take decisive action on denuclearization. It also means the DPRK will live with a stalemate in which it can enjoy a de facto nuclear status without serious military threat, while simultaneously keeping its political relationship with the outside world relatively steady.
In any case, Kim Jong-un’s reign will outlive the whole of Trump’s presidency, even if he is reelected for another four years. The ideal outcome for Kim is certainly to keep nuclear weapons in hand and let the international community live with this as a fait accompli, and at the same time let North Korea normalize as a part of the world community, with a limited scale of economic integration with East Asia. Since it has always been virtually impossible for the US to use force to resolve this issue, and sanctions are the only feasible means to be used as sticks to create leverage, the only possible outcome for denuclearization must be brought about by North Korea’s own calculations of its own best interests. It remains difficult to conclude that Kim has made a “strategic resolution” to denuclearize in exchange for economic benefit, seen in his refusal of a “grand bargain” offered by the US in Hanoi — that DPRK should give up all its nuclear weapons in exchange for revoking all sanctions. He is instead sticking to a deal to give up only the Yongbyon facilities if the US agrees to unwind the UN sanctions imposed since 2016 (which constitute the core of the UN sanction regimen). This move demonstrates that North Korea still wants to retain other nuclear capabilities and simultaneously get rid of the most effective, substantial sanctions it faces.
The US knows the difficult dilemma it faces with North Korea’s denuclearization — it has been a paradox for the US as it seeks to impose maximum pressure on one hand, while engaging with North Korea on the other. Maximum pressure is doomed to be compromised away as the diplomatic track begins to take center stage, thus lessening US leverage over the DPRK to achieve America’s ideal goal of CVID denuclearization. Moreover, with negotiations ongoing, international unity on pressuring North Korea will split, allowing more room to maneuver for the DPRK. Considering Trump’s insistence that he has “nice chemistry” with Kim, along with his intention to restart talks, postponement of further US sanctions, and scaling back of military exercises, it’s very unlikely that he would get tougher on North Korea again as long as Kim does not test another missile or provide some other provocation.
In the long run, potential dangers remain if matters cannot not be resolved on a fundamental level. As time goes by, the US may be forced to acquiesce to a nuclear North Korea. This will bring two unpleasant possible outcomes for China: one is to face a more robust US military deterrence in Northeast Asia, and the other is to allow regional powers such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia to confront the DPRK’s nuclear threat themselves as US presence in the region declines. Neither of these outcomes is a boon for China.
For China, prioritizing denuclearization as the foremost goal is imperative. With this as the core of China’s Korea policy, China should stick to the current UN sanctions and strengthen law enforcement in this regard, while also coordinating closely with the US and the rest of the world on a common roadmap for North Korean denuclearization. Concerted efforts should be made by the world community on the pace of sanction relief. China should also use its close ties with the DPRK to persuasively push for denuclearization and provide, in tandem with other stakeholders, the support that North Korea needs for this purpose. The US should also consult more with China throughout the whole process so as to reduce mistrust over this thorny issue.