Mirage of Peace: Trump, China, and Kim Jong-un
Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un shake hands in Beijing in June 2018, via FT.com.
To what extent has the souring of US-China relations impacted the prospects for diplomacy on the Korean peninsula? In the aftermath of Joe Biden’s presidential visit to Seoul, North Korea remains closed for both business and negotiation. With China in view, Rory de Mellow takes the opportunity to look back a couple of years, when the US chief executive was unaccountably keen to work his powers of persuasion on Kim Jong-un. – Adam Cathcart, senior editor
The Maximum Pressure Strategy
North Korea remains a de facto nuclear power reportedly armed with thermonuclear weapons and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). A United Nations (UN) sanctions regime, designed to severely restrict North Korea’s ability to generate revenue to support the Kim dynasty and the Korean People’s Army, persists. Along with North Korea leaning towards Russia amid the war in Ukraine, this is the new status quo that the Biden Administration now shows far less enthusiasm in trying to alter as new weapons tests and US-China friction appears to be closing the window of opportunity for diplomacy.
After then-US National Security Adviser H. R. Macmaster led a short policy review, the Trump White House opted for the strategically orthodox tactic of maximum pressure. The strategy aimed to compel North Korea to come to the table and abandon its nuclear program through ever more coercive measures including severe economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation and military posturing. The unprecedented contents of Trump’s speech at the 72nd meeting of the UN General Assembly in September 2017 further advanced the maximum pressure strategy with confrontational rhetoric.
Extraordinarily, Trump threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” and referred to Kim Jong-un as “little rocket man” in front of the world’s leaders. But in this same speech, Trump specifically thanked Russia and China for their fresh support of maximum pressure sanctions in the UN Security Council but also called on the General Assembly audience to do “much more”. Thus, beneath the alarming and headline-grabbing rhetoric of Trump’s remarks, was a tacit expression of America’s desire for Chinese cooperation in enforcing an effective sanctions regime.
Accordingly, the second key and somewhat novel element of the maximum pressure policy was leveraging the Sino-North Korean relationship. Many analysts and policymakers viewed China’s acquiescence to sanctions against North Korea as crucial to their success given China’s economic ties and geographic proximity to the DPRK. China’s help was needed, as new sanctions passed throughout 2017 had a “comprehensive reach” in targeting all aspects of the North Korean economy.
UN Security Council Resolution 2397, for example, targeted the DPRK’s oil supply and the use of North Korean workers internationally whilst also authorizing the detention of vessels believed to be trading with North Korea. In addition to these UN sanctions, the US moved towards employing its own coercive secondary sanctions which would directly target actors violating sanctions to trade with Pyongyang.
These measures, however, must be viewed within the context of the “China responsibility theory” prevalent in Washington. Washington sanctioned numerous companies and individuals throughout 2017 including fining the Chinese technology company ZTE and barring China’s Bank of Dandong from doing business in the US. Secondary sanctions were a crucial coercive tool that the United States effectively deployed to ensure Chinese cooperation in pressuring the North Korean economy.
Moreover, the pressing importance of addressing Chinese-North Korea trade linkages was vividly demonstrated to American officials in July 2017 when the DPRK successfully tested its first ICBM. Such a launch was extremely alarming for Washington as the DPRK had now acquired a missile capable of reaching the continental United States. What was perhaps most stinging for the United States, however, was that the ICBM had been fired from an enormous launcher vehicle manufactured in China.
The View from Beijing
Despite North Korea’s geostrategic importance for China, events such as the 1956 Factional Incident have arguably created a lasting mistrust between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kim dynasty. Indeed, the conception that Sino-North Korea relations are naturally as close as lips and teeth has been dismissed as a “fictitious legend”. Today, the DPRK’s weapons program has unquestionably caused Beijing a range of strategic headaches including the increased risk of conflict or crisis and the intensified prospect of regional militarization.
Hence, China most likely resented the DPRK’s policy course which held the potential to undermine the PRC’s strategic security as an existing nuclear power by initiating wider regional nuclear proliferation. The CCP’s overriding concern, however, was avoiding a direct military confrontation occurring on the Korean Peninsula to ensure regional stability.
Worryingly for China, in 2017 both sides seemed to be moving towards nuclear war. President Trump tweeted in August, for example, that “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded”. Thus, the agency of the United States and its allies to influence China’s policies and actions has been noted. In addition, the argument has been made that growing public resentment of Pyongyang’s actions within China has also turned the Chinese elite away from supporting the North Korean regime.
It would, therefore, appear that North Korea’s behavior ran counter to China’s strategic interest and was pushing Beijing’s strategic calculus closer to a “tipping point”. Hence, China’s increasing willingness to support the UN Security Council’s punitive sanctions against North Korea was motivated by the Kim regime’s escalating and provocative weapons tests.
However, there are both alternative interpretations of China’s stance towards North Korea and wider geostrategic considerations for the PRC to be understood as North Korea continued to furnish China with a buffer and counterweight against American power. Even the Kim regime’s most provocative schemes arguably still assisted the CCP’s foreign policy goals by confronting, undermining, and diverting the US and its regional allies including the ROK and Japan. Thus, Beijing’s motivations for its continued support of Pyongyang cannot be viewed outside of the wider context of growing hostility and competition between China and the United States.
The heightening of tensions between the two states also decreases the likelihood of future Sino-American cooperation on the subject of North Korea and its weapons program. Indeed, this would not be the first time in history that the Sino-North Korean relationship has been underpinned by “mutual enemies”. China’s current position on North Korea is, therefore, nuanced and complex as the DPRK’s pursuit of nuclear weapons simultaneously represents a threat and an opportunity for Beijing.
Kim Jong-Un disembarks an Air China jet upon arrival in Singapore in June 2018, via ABC.net.au.
Hawks vs. Doves and the Dangers of Diplomacy
Nevertheless, the wisdom of the maximum pressure approach and accompanying saber-rattling is not uncontested nor is diplomacy and negotiation uncontroversial. China’s leverage over North Korea can be overstated given that the Sino-North Korean relationship has historically witnessed “alliance entrapment” whereby smaller nations have a “disproportionate influence” upon their much more powerful allies. Therefore, there are clear limitations to China’s influence on North Korea as Beijing lacked both the enticing incentives and the credible sanctions necessary to induce the DPRK to change course.
Beijing’s ability to coerce Pyongyang lacks credibility because any punitive measure which risks regional stability and the survival of the Kim regime undermines China’s fundamental interests. Hence, Chinese President Xi Jinping likely attempted to persuade President Trump that wider complexities pose notable limitations on China’s ability to influence the DPRK when the two leaders met in April 2017. Xi was initially successful in this effort to induce Trump’s deference to China’s position through flattery. Yet, members of the wider Washington establishment remained unconvinced by both China’s denials of responsibility and Trump’s enthusiasm for personal diplomacy.
President Trump was not well suited to deal with such a difficult task as a character who displayed a “bizarre disconnect from the complexity and seriousness of the issues at stake”. Donald Trump’s attempt to reach an agreement with Kim Jong-un through personal diplomacy was a failed miscalculation whilst Trump’s White House was over-ambitious and unrealistic in what could have been achieved.
Furthermore, Trump paid too much public attention to the sensitive and complex issue at hand for personal political gain rather than strategic advancement. Trump’s approach was epitomized by the president’s numerous misleading, misguided, or irresponsible tweets on the matter. Simply by meeting Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump was granting the North Korean Supreme Leader a significant political advantage.
Yet, Trump’s meeting with Kim was still a historic event and a missed opportunity. Diplomacy continues to offer the United States a pathway for progress whilst meeting China’s foundational goal of regional stability. However, with increasing tension between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, the likelihood of cooperation on the challenge posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is declining. China, nevertheless, remains a crucial factor in formulating a successful strategy for dealing with the challenge posed by North Korea’s Kim regime.
Moreover, North Korea’s offensives nuclear capabilities will only grow over time if left unchecked. Consequently, Washington must act quickly to achieve a more limited but achievable diplomatic agreement as a stepping stone towards the de-escalation of tensions to ensure the avoidance of a catastrophic war. It is, thus, also of “paramount importance” that decision-makers better understand North Korea’s complex historical relations with China. Likewise, the United States needs to better understand its own interlinked historical policy approaches towards the DPRK to improve its future strategy.
Rory de Mellow is a University of Leeds graduate in International History and Politics. His interests include international security, US foreign policy, and Sino-Korean relations.
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