Bringing peace to the Korean peninsula could have been one of US President Donald Trump’s crowning achievements during his first term in office. He has gone to extraordinary lengths to try and secure a peaceful outcome with North Korea and taken unprecedented steps that none of his predecessors would ever have dreamed of. For example, he symbolically entered North Korean soil to shake hands with the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
Peace is Still a Long Way Off
With a presidential election only months away, it is looking increasingly unlikely that Trump can brag to his electorate that he has become the first American leader to officially end the Korean War. Instead of clamping down on its nuclear program, CNN reports that there has been activity at an undeclared North Korean facility that researchers suspect is being used to build nuclear weapons.
The Korean Peace Process is at a Stalemate
The peace process has reached a stalemate for other reasons as well. The US is ready to continue stalled nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang, according to Stephen Biegun, Washington’s envoy to North Korea, who made the comments during a visit to South Korea. He is hoping to get talks started again before the US general election in November.
Meanwhile, Kim has been making far fewer public appearances than usual. On Wednesday, it was reported that he marked the anniversary of the death of his grandfather, North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il Sung, by visiting his mausoleum at Pyongyang’s Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. The North Korean leader has also recently refused to meet with his US counterpart again.
However, Trump’s attention throughout his entire presidency has been distracted by another authoritarian regime in Asia- China. The US President triggered an 18-month trade war with Chinese President Xi Jinping which ended with Phase 1 of a US-China trade deal in January. Nonetheless, the coronavirus triggered another dispute between both nations.
Trump Cannot Have it Both Ways
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted earlier this week that the US must adopt a different approach to Beijing which contrasts with the one previous administrations have taken to open up China’s economy to the world. Without revealing too much in advance what the American President wants to do with Beijing, the Secretary of State suggested that the Trump administration is considering banning Chinese social media apps like TikTok. This was then confirmed by Trump himself on Thursday as part of a series of measures his administration will be rolling out to punish China for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The problem with the Trump administration’s twin-track approach of tackling China whilst attempting to end the Korean War is that the US President needs Chinese involvement in the Korean peace process to ensure the latter reaches a successful conclusion. Unless US-Chinese tensions can end peacefully, it will be difficult for the Trump administration to ask Beijing to help them in Korea in any meaningful way.
Trump Needs China On Side if He Wants North Korean Peace
Victor Cha, the former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007, also believes that Trump needs China to restore peace in Korea. If China and the US could cooperate more on this issue, then the Trump administration could persuade Xi to end his country’s payments to Pyongyang until the latter has cut back on its nuclear program.
At some stage, Beijing should also be persuaded to clamp down on Chinese individuals doing business in North Korea. For example, the US successfully shamed four Chinese citizens who attempted to evade US sanctions in September 2016.
The simple truth is that Trump cannot have it both ways on China and North Korea. Pyongyang has no incentive to end its nuclear program while Washington continues to deploy sanctions against them. The peace process needs more stick now, and only China can provide it because Chinese payments to North Korea help preserve Kim’s regime. For now, the Korean peace process will continue to remain an unresolved problem that will haunt future US presidents.