Can Trump and Xi agree on North Korea?

The North Korea flag flutters next to concertina wire at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su - RTS122QZ

Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet President Trump in Mar-a-Lago next week, and North Korea will be very high on the agenda. To judge from the comments in both Washington and Beijing, there is increased urgency to addressing this long-festering crisis. Heightened activity at the nuclear test site suggests the possibility of a sixth nuclear test in the near term, possibly coinciding with the meeting between the two presidents. Recent Chinese commentaries also suggest that forging a coordinated U.S.-China strategy is more feasible than observers have long believed.

The United States has repeatedly criticized China for its unwillingness to appreciably heighten pressure on North Korea for its nuclear weapon and missile development. In the view of successive US administrations, China has failed to fully implement U.N. Security Council sanctions to inhibit Pyongyang’s weapons programs, or to exact other costs on North Korea.

The challenge for the Trump administration is to shift this corrosive and unproductive dynamic. Nearly all U.S.-China interactions on the nuclear issue have been at a working diplomatic level. But momentum in any initiatives between the two capitals has seldom been sustained. Without a shared strategy at the highest levels of national leadership, the dangers posed by North Korean weapons development and the prospect of an acute crisis will only grow.

No olive branch in sight

Though insufficiently appreciated outside China, President Xi has long been deeply alienated from Kim Jong-un. Xi has never met Kim, and shows little interest in doing so.  Meetings between Chinese and North Korean officials are sporadic, and high-level exchanges have not occurred in years.

During his meeting with President Obama at Sunnylands in 2013, Xi spoke dismissively of the young leader, who (despite the North’s economic dependence on China) has repeatedly defied Beijing. Worse, Kim has purged or executed the small number of senior North Korean officials known to Beijing, most prominently Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek.

In the face of near-universal opposition, Kim has doubled down on the North’s nuclear and missile wager, testing nuclear weapons on three separate occasions and undertaking dozens of ballistic missile tests, including several recent tests that represent major breakthroughs.  He has no interest in curbing or reversing his weapons programs, and his presence at numerous tests ties him even more deeply to these pursuits.

[Kim’s] behavior is as much a nightmare for China as it is for the United States and its allies.

Although Kim has yet to make good on his New Year’s Day speech claiming that North Korea was advancing toward an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), he has stymied the United States and China at every turn. It is not possible to predict what Kim envisions as the ultimate objectives of his program. But his behavior is as much a nightmare for China as it is for the United States and its allies. This is where the search for common ground must begin.

Graphic showing size and dates of North Korean nuclear and missile tests.

Tackling a shared problem

However, President Xi thus far seems unable or unwilling to impede Kim Jong-un’s steady advance toward an operational nuclear weapons capability. He appears to believe that moving more coercively against Kim runs the risk of outright policy failure and would trigger lasting enmity between Beijing and Pyongyang.

As a fallback, China has repeatedly characterized North Korea as “a U.S. problem” for which Washington must assume disproportionate responsibility. But Beijing grasps that this is a looming crisis on China’s doorstep. Any effort by the United States or by China to outsource this issue is not the answer, and only provides North Korea additional running room.

The American and Chinese leaderships need to develop a coordinated strategy. This would impose unambiguous costs on Pyongyang and deny North Korea any presumed political or military advantage from its nuclear and missile advances. A coordinated strategy would be especially important in the event of a major crisis on the peninsula.

However, an agreement between Washington and Beijing would not bring an early end to the weapons program. Barring the collapse of the North Korean regime or the emergence of an alternative leadership in Pyongyang (neither seems remotely possible in the near term), the United States and China must prepare for an open-ended effort to prevent worst-case outcomes—and to inhibit and delegitimize additional nuclear and missile advances by the North.

A coordinated strategy would seek to further restrict North Korea’s illicit acquisitions of technology, severely limit Pyongyang’s ability to earn foreign exchange, and presumes the readiness of the United States and China to share sensitive information on various weapons programs and on North Korean economic conditions. The objective would be to build on areas where U.S. and Chinese interests align, and avoid areas where they don’t (for example, the U.S.-ROK decision to deploy THAAD missile batteries in Korea). Additional displays of policy divergence would be a gift to Pyongyang, when the overriding goal should be to limit the strategic space within which North Korea operates.

Despite China’s renewed calls for “dual suspensions” (i.e., North Korea would supposedly agree to suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the United States and ROK suspending their military exercises), this proposal is a non-starter. Washington should instead focus on China’s growing disaffection from Pyongyang, including Beijing’s announced decision to suspend coal imports for the remainder of 2017, prompting accusations by Pyongyang of “inhumane steps” by “a neighboring country…[that is] dancing to the tune of the U.S.”

Anxiety in Beijing

China’s growing frustration with North Korea and its fears of a larger crisis have been apparent in a series of revealing editorials since early March in a popular Party newspaper, Huanqiu Shibao [Global Times]. On March 2, the newspaper warned that “the situation on the peninsula is now probably at its most dangerous time and is as close to being out of control since the end of the Korean War.” The editorial writer even conceded: “there is not even a unified view within China on how we should get Pyongyang to abandon nuclear weapons.” But it insisted that there was outright unanimity within China on the “ultimate objective” of denuclearization.

A March 21 editorial stated that “the international community will absolutely not accept the legitimacy of North Korea possessing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.” It further asserted that “international sanctions will tighten and isolate North Korea over the long term.” But it also warned that Pyongyang “will not be willing to let itself be suffocated and it may take some dangerous and provocative actions toward the outside world, thereby triggering new confrontations until a showdown occurs unexpectedly.” It concluded that nuclear weapons and ICBMs would not provide Pyongyang with added security and would only strengthen international sanctions, thereby denying North Korea any opportunity for economic revival.

Equally important, the editorial observed that China, the United States, and Russia were all unalterably opposed to North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons. As it concluded: “Pyongyang cannot use diplomatic maneuvers to cause confrontations among great powers to create a decisive opportunity for it to break through international sanctions.” Even in the event of an acute crisis or outright war, the “U.S. will not fear [North Korea’s nuclear weapons] or casually make concessions to North Korea.” But it also cautioned: “there might not be as much time as some people think to peacefully resolve the North Korea nuclear issue…all sides need to have a sense of urgency.”

A March 22 editorial further noted that there is “an increasingly consistent attitude from the international community toward sanctioning North Korea, [and] the country is facing more difficulties in sidestepping them…North Korea has claimed to have nuclear weapons, has also become the most insecure country in the world… the international community should guide it toward this realization.”

These views suggest a growing awareness in Beijing of the dangers posed by North Korea’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, including to China. These accord closely with U.S. views. Xi and Trump have an unparalleled opportunity to achieve a genuine breakthrough on this long-festering crisis that puts the vital interests of both countries and the region as a whole at growing risk. Will they be able to seize it?