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China’s Moment to Lead on North Korea

Doug Bandow

After insisting that China should “solve” the North
Korea problem, President Donald Trump appears to have given up.
“While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi &
China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I
know China tried,” he tweeted. Now the issue apparently is
back in President Trump’s not so capable hands.

Unfortunately, the administration really didn’t try.
Beijing never was going to act just because President Trump wanted
it to. Expecting the People’s Republic of China to destroy
its ally while the U.S. was busy elsewhere in the region seeking to
contain Chinese military power, and to do so without receiving
anything in return, never was realistic. Unspecified trade
concessions simply weren’t enough to make a deal. Washington
had to offer far more.

Alas, the administration doesn’t have any other good
options. Despite President Trump’s posturing with his promise
to send an armada off of Korea’s coast, his officials later
discounted the possibility of taking military action. Airstrikes
might not reach all the facilities and probably would ignite a war,
with devastating consequences to everyone involved, most
dramatically South Korea.

The situation in the
North is likely to worsen, while the opportunities to solve it
peacefully are likely to shrink. Action is needed now.

Enhanced sanctions are more likely, including secondary
sanctions against Chinese companies and banks. This would risk
creating a confrontation with Beijing, which has always rejected
unilateral penalties, especially against its nationals. By shifting
the issue from North Korea to the PRC the Trump administration
might actually increase Chinese support for the North. Witness the
popular rage against South Korea over the THAAD deployment.

Moreover, though tougher sanctions would impose economic
hardship, there is no reason to assume that alone would bring
Pyongyang to heel. When I visited the Democratic People’s
Republic of Korea in June, officials insisted they would stand firm
against America’s “hostile policy” no matter
what. Of course, they could be expected to say that. But the DPRK
did not change policy even in the midst of horrific famine a couple
decades ago.

And so far the PRC appears to value stability above all. If the
Kim regime appeared in danger of breaking, Beijing might buttress
the North rather than risk a collapse, and the violent chaos which
could follow. Which likely would lead to U.S. retaliation against
China.

None of this is in the PRC’s interest. Instead of acting
as bystander if both regional stability and U.S. relations unravel,
Beijing push Washington to engage in serious negotiation with all
parties.

The U.S. is in no position to simply order the DPRK about.
Indeed, America’s bellicosity and propensity for regime
change have given the Kim dynasty a justification for building
nuclear weapons. The North Koreans pointed to American military
intervention elsewhere and told me that they intended to meet
military force with military force. To change that Washington will
have to make concessions too.

America’s priority should be halting Pyongyang’s
advancing missile and nuclear programs. Living with a North Korean
arsenal of 20 bombs would be unpalatable but not impossible. The
DPRK with 100 nukes and the capability to hit any city in the U.S.
would be quite different. The priority should be containing the
threat.

Thus, Washington should revive the North’s proposal for a
freeze on its activities in return for an end to annual military
exercises between the U.S. and South Korea. The latter agitates
North Korean officials, who call them a cover for possible attack.
However, when I raised this possibility they dismissed it, saying
that the U.S. had rejected their offer. Coming from China and
America together, and backed by the threat of joint sanctions, it
would be more persuasive.

With some breathing space, Washington could work with the
Republic of Korea and Japan to develop a big offer in return for
denuclearization, and Beijing to win the latter’s
endorsement. The package would have to emphasize security—the
DPRK’s rulers watched the war in Libya and aren’t
impressed with verbal assurances like those offered by Secretary of
State Rex Tillerson. Washington would have to take steps to end its
“hostile policy,” in the North’s parlance.

China should offer its support, as well as whatever assistance
and assurances would encourage Pyongyang’s acceptance. The
objective is to denuclearize the peninsula peacefully through
negotiation. All efforts should be directed at providing a positive
option that contrasts favorably to the much more hostile approach
if diplomacy is rejected.

In return, the PRC would agree to back the effort with the
threat of enforcing its own and U.S. sanctions, so long as its
other interests were respected. That would include allied
assistance for China if the result was a DPRK collapse. There
likely would be refugees to be cared for. There could be factional
fighting. Beijing might believe military intervention was necessary
to stabilize the country.

Moreover, the U.S. should offer assurances that reunification
would not put Beijing at a geopolitical disadvantage: in
particular, all American military forces should go home in the
event of unification. Seoul should consider a declaration of
military neutrality for a unified peninsula. The allies might find
such offers distasteful, but the PRC cannot be expected to aid its
own containment.

Even this approach has critics. Some aver the importance of
regular maneuvers to combat effectiveness, but the ROK should be
taking over ever more of the responsibility for its own defense.
The South vastly outstrips the North on every other measure of
power. Others fear the agreement would not be enforceable, but that
would be an issue for any negotiated settlement. Finally, such an
agreement would leave human rights at risk. However, a North Korea
holding tightly to its nuclear weapons seems unlikely to relax
political controls.

President Trump raised the potential of a China-U.S. deal over
North Korea. Beijing shouldn’t let him drop the issue without
trying to reach an agreement. The situation in the North is likely
to worsen, while the opportunities to solve it peacefully are
likely to shrink. Action is needed now.

Doug Bandow is
a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special
assistant to President Ronald Reagan.