Why Trump’s North Korean Policy Depends on China

The chances of US President Donald Trump reaching a deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un decreased further on Monday morning as Pyongyang launched two short-range missiles into its eastern sea. The projectiles were fired from an area near the town of Wonsan and flew about 149 miles northeast while reaching a height of about 35 kilometers, according to the Associated Press. Furthermore, they are likely to be short-range ballistic missiles.

Japan and South Korea Alarmed at Renewed North Korean Belligerence

North Korea’s latest missile tests have alarmed both Japan and South Korea. Japan’s defense ministry confirmed that there was no indication that the projectiles launched by North Korea reached their territory or economic zone. However, South Korea’s presidential office told the Associated Press that defense and national security officials expressed ‘strong concern’ over Pyongyang’s resumption of nuclear activities.

The news could not come at a worse time for Trump as he faces the prospect of re-election this year. North Korea cropped up in last week’s South Carolina Democratic debate with Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar slamming the White House’s handling of Jong Un. She argued that the US’s closest allies need to be more involved in discussions with ending Pyongyang’s testing activities. If he does not find a solution quickly, this is an issue the Democrats will more than likely use against him in November.

Trump Admin’s Approach to North Korea

The Trump administration has taken crucial steps to solve the North Korean crisis. Last June, the US President entered North Korea’s heavily-fortified demilitarized zone, which is the armistice line that has separated both North and South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

In February 2019, Trump and Jong Un met in Hanoi, Vietnam. The planned signing ceremony collapsed when the US President told reporters that ‘sometimes you have to walk’ in response to the North Korean leader’s demands that all nuclear sanctions be lifted in exchange for some concessions sought by the US from Pyongyang related to its nuclear program.

A year has passed since the Hanoi meeting and the Trump administration is running out of time and options. North Korea has made rapid progress since 2016 in developing a nuclear weapon that could one day be launched at the US itself. As Gregory F. Treverton argued in Time, neither diplomacy nor sanctions are working, and one possible option to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear program is regime change from within. For now, that outcome seems unlikely.

China Needs to be More Involved in a Solution

Victor Cha, who was the director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007, believes that progress can only be made if China gets more involved in Trump’s negotiations with Pyongyang. Beijing’s payments that maintain the North Korean regime’s existence should be tied to denuclearization. If China has to pay for denuclearization, it will take Pyongyang’s violations more seriously than it does now.

Beijing should also clamp down on Chinese nationals doing business in North Korea. The US Justice Department named and shamed four Chinese citizens in September 2016 who conspired to evade US sanctions and facilitate dollar transactions for a sanctioned entity in Pyongyang. China should also extradite cases like these.

The problem Washington has is that relations with Beijing have become strained in recent years, though that is beginning to change thanks to the US-China trade deal.

China’s Failure and Reluctance to Address North Korean Aggression

For too long, the Chinese Government has failed to participate in talks that could lead to North Korea ending its nuclear programme to avert a border crisis on its doorstep. It also uses Pyongyang for its own economic gain as the Chinese preserve 80 to 85 percent of North Korea’s trade.

Trump may not have enough time now to resolve the North Korean crisis thanks to the 2020 election, but he can start laying the groundwork with his Chinese counterpart to launching an agreement that would witness the beginning of the end of Pyongyang’s nuclear program. At least then he can boast in November that he made more progress on this issue than any of his predecessors. Yet the question remains: what is in it for China?