Last year, the U.S. and North Korea were threatening to attack one another. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Americans imagined the possibility, however remote, of nuclear conflict. The potential for war that seemed to have disappeared, now was back.
President Donald Trump pressed China to squeeze the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) economically as part of his strategy of “maximum pressure.” Beijing did so, though tighter sanctions enforcement reflected the Xi government’s frustration with its nominal ally as well as U.S. lobbying. The DPRK suffered economically while continuing to resist demands to abandon its nuclear weapons.
This year both Pyongyang and Washington switched to diplomacy, which set off a cascade of North Korean summits—with the presidents of China, South Korea, and the United States. Meetings with Russia’s president and Japan’s prime minister may follow. However, the Trump administration was recently reminded that irrespective of what was said at the June Trump-Kim summit, the North is not ready to simply hand over its nukes. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s July trip to Pyongyang was noticeably less successful, causing the DPRK to accuse him of making “gangster-like” demands.
President Trump, not one for introspection, decided that Beijing likely was to blame. He tweeted that the People’s Republic of China “may be exerting negative pressure on a deal because of our posture on Chinese Trade—Hope Not!” The Xi government naturally denied the accusation. What the PRC has been saying to Pyongyang is unknown, outside of those two governments at least. As a senior South Korean diplomat told me, the Chinese did not give Seoul a “read-out” from the last Xi-Kim summit. Beijing likely sought to reward the DPRK for its willingness to negotiate. The Chinese almost certainly also discussed how the North planned to proceed. Serving Washington’s interest would not be Beijing’s top priority, to put it mildly.
Yet the president has no one to blame but himself. After all, in his effort to win the PRC’s aid, he suggested that he might cut China a better trade deal. Now, after benefiting from Beijing’s tougher sanctions enforcement, he appears to have forgotten that offer. And even if he had not suggested a quid-pro-quo, it should hardly surprise him if his Chinese counterparts looked for asymmetric responses to his decision to unleash a potentially costly trade war. Surely, he would do the same if the two governments’ positions were reversed.
Moreover, the U.S. continues to ignore China’s obvious concerns regarding the Korean Peninsula. First, the PRC doesn’t want to risk an implosion, which could generate mass refugee flows, violent factional conflict, and loose nuclear weapons. Second, President Xi Jinping, like his predecessors, does not want to contribute to a reunited Korea allied with America that could be used as a base to contain Beijing. An independent DPRK reliant on the U.S. would be little better from China’s perspective.
Washington apparently has done nothing to help allay these concerns. And North Korea, which famously played the Soviet Union against the PRC during the Cold War, undoubtedly has played upon Chinese fears. So, it would be natural for the Xi government to take a friendlier approach to the North if the latter was threatening to embrace Beijing’s great rival. Again, that would be a tactic worthy of the Trump administration in similar circumstances.
Moreover, the U.S. president appears to have had utterly unrealistic expectations regarding Kim Jong-un’s willingness to yield his nuclear weapons, or at least how quickly he would do so. Had President Trump read the Iran nuclear agreement which he so cavalierly abrogated – apparently in response to Saudi and Israeli pressure – he would realize the complicated process necessary to enforce nonproliferation. The one page “agreement” signed in Singapore was at best a letter of intent which simultaneously promised everything and nothing.
Of particular importance, the North Koreans appeared to consciously set a sequence leading to denuclearization: first establish a trusting relationship, second create a peace regime, and only third proceed with disarmament. This would fit with Kim’s pre-summit comment that nuclear weapons would not be necessary if the DPRK and U.S. warmed relations and met often.
Maybe Kim was not sincere in committing to denuclearization. In fact, the vast majority of Korea analysts in Washington do not believe that he ultimately will abandon his nuclear weapons and program. If true, that would simply reflect Kim’s rational self-interest: how to best protect his regime? That would not be China’s fault.
If Kim is willing to yield his nukes, then the U.S. has no complaint if he proceeds cautiously. After all, past U.S. behavior cannot instill confidence in Kim that Washington is serious about respecting his security – ask Libya’s Muammar Khadafy how the latter liked the results of his nuclear deal. Indeed, the president appointed as his national security adviser an uber-hawk who had favored war against the DPRK; said nothing when that official pointed to Libya as a good model for North Korea; and dumped the denuclearization accord negotiated by his predecessor. Is there any reason to expect greater respect for Pyongyang if it gives up its leverage?
Such natural distrust could be overcome by creating a web of diplomatic, economic, and political ties, but that will take time, far more than just one meeting and five hours together. Kim needs to be convinced that the president wants peace and stability more than victory and conquest.
Beijing is more likely to dampen rather than feed North Korean suspicions if it believes that Washington will respect Chinese interests. That suggests the necessity for serious discussions between the PRC and South Korea as well as America over the possible end game on the Korean Peninsula.
To his credit, President Trump was willing to help break the Korean deadlock. But the recent summit was a beginning, not the end. Washington needs to build a relationship with the Kim government, and that process will be smoother if the U.S. also improves its ties with Beijing.