Foreign Policy Essay

China Won’t Fix North Korea—Focus on These Four Areas Instead

By Jacob Stokes, Alexander Sullivan
Sunday, March 26, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: North Korea is a problem that has vexed multiple administrations since the end of the Cold War. As the Pyongyang puzzle has grown more difficult to solve, policymakers increasingly look to China for help. Jacob Stokes and Alex Sullivan contend this is a mistake. They argue that China is not likely to abandon North Korea and that U.S. pressure might even backfire. Instead, they propose a mix of changes to current policy that offer more hope of coercing North Korea.


Kim Jong Un’s North Korea continues to make one provocative move after another: It keeps firing off missiles and detonating nuclear devices and recently used chemical weapons to assassinate Kim’s exiled half-brother in the Kuala Lumpur airport. The pace and scope of developments has generated a growing consensus among national security leaders that the situation is deteriorating quickly and something needs to change. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent trip to Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), and China focused on the challenge emanating from North Korea. And the topic will no doubt be high on the list for President Donald Trump’s potential meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping early next month.

However, most of the options analysts and policymakers propose rely on an old assumption: The best way to influence Pyongyang is via a geopolitical bank-shot through Beijing. President Trump expressed this view very clearly on the campaign trail when he promised to tell China’s leadership that “this [North Korea] is your baby. This is your problem. You solve the problem, because China can solve that problem.” Since the election Trump has lamented that China “won't help with North Korea,” suggesting again that Beijing should be expected to rein in Pyongyang. He doubled down earlier this month as Tillerson prepared to meet with Chinese counterparts and lobbed the accusation that “China has done little to help” control Pyongyang. The Bloomberg editorial board also recently opined that it is “China’s turn to deal with North Korea.”

China, however, will not solve the North Korea problem for the United States. Instead, the United States should deepen regional alliance coordination, implement a truly global pressure campaign, take steps to increase deterrence, and try to resuscitate the diplomatic track with little expectation that Beijing will positively alter the equation.

Here’s Hoping

Looking to China for a solution to North Korea’s misdeeds makes a lot of sense at first blush. Beijing has tremendous potential leverage over Pyongyang due to its substantial economic and diplomatic ties, which keep the Kim regime afloat. According to the CIA, in 2015 an estimated 76 percent of North Korea’s exports went to China. In the same year, according to U.N. data, North Korea’s single largest import category was refined petroleum, 63 percent of which came from China. Chinese influence would be the most direct and effective route to strong-arming the DPRK.

Policymakers also hope China will pressure North Korea because of what such pressure, if applied, would say about how the Middle Kingdom intends to use its growing power globally. Most of the world agrees North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, as well as its horrific human rights violations, contravene international norms and threaten global stability. Therefore, if China is sincere about exercising leadership in the international community, as President Xi Jinping declared very clearly at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, it should take the lead on solving the issue. Choosing the path of cooperation would demonstrate that China intends to use its burgeoning power to improve international security.

Little Help

Unfortunately, aspirations that China will take bold action to deal with North Korea remain misplaced for two reasons. First, a number of straightforward but crucial rationales dissuade China from acting: the potential for a flood of refugees if the Kim regime collapses, the threat of loose nuclear material, loss of Chinese economic investments in the North, and worries about a unified Korea still allied with the United States on China’s border. Additionally, while the North currently aims its growing missile arsenal at the ROK, Japan, and the United States, it could theoretically turn those same missiles toward China if relations ruptured. Chinese leaders prefer the shaky status quo to a potentially chaotic future.

When the United States leans hard on Beijing in the hopes of getting China to squeeze North Korea, Chinese leaders begin to focus more on the U.S. pressure itself rather than what prompted U.S. concerns...

The second reason why China refuses to put the screws to Pyongyang is because Chinese leaders’ incentives change the more Washington makes the DPRK issue a pressure point within U.S.-China relations. When the United States leans hard on Beijing in the hopes of getting China to squeeze North Korea, Chinese leaders begin to focus more on the U.S. pressure itself rather than what prompted U.S. concerns, i.e. North Korea’s behavior. The new framing guides Chinese leaders to concentrate on how, as they see it, China is engaged in strategic competition with the United States, and North Korea constitutes one of the few places where the United States is truly vulnerable.

If Beijing exerts its influence to solve the problem, relative gains will accrue to the United States—it would amount to China “pulling the United States’ chestnuts out of the fire.” Moreover, if Chinese leaders change their longstanding policy in response to overt U.S. pressure, they might worry that it will diminish their reputation for resolve and invite Washington to up the ante on other bilateral issues.

This is evident in the way Chinese intellectuals and state-affliated media discuss the issue. Prominent Chinese scholar Yan Xuetong, who's notably bearish on the value of Sino-North Korean relations, has said that sanctions in response to North Korean nuclear tests are a “Western hegemonic idea...It's only Western countries that are calling for sanctions.” In other words, pressuring Pyongyang financially serves only U.S. interests. The editorial board of the nationalist newspaper Global Times has derided the idea of Washington pressuring Beijing, writing, “Trump has clearly not thought through how to deal with a Pyongyang that is accelerating its nuclear and missile programs; instead, Washington will try to force China to ‘take a bullet’ for them.”

Even if Beijing were to turn away from Pyongyang, it would want something in return from an avowedly transactional President Trump. The U.S. administration is signaling big fights ahead over trade and economic issues, and China’s influence over North Korea stands as a big bargaining chip. Making the road to Pyongyang run through Beijing incentivizes Beijing to hold that influence in reserve. Placing the DPRK issue solely in the context of U.S.-China relations shifts the incentives for Beijing away from pressuring their defiant client and toward seeking ways to either thwart U.S. aims as an end unto itself or delay intervention to maximize China’s leverage.

China is also loath to sell out Pyongyang because its relations with the DPRK continue to provide benefits. Beijing lacks friends internationally, particularly ones that share some degree of political amity rather just economic ties, so China hangs onto the problematic few partners it has. Think Pakistan, Russia, Cambodia, and yes, North Korea (familial bickering aside). Also, having North Korea menacing Asia means China is not the only regional security problem for the United States. As a result, Washington must divide its diplomatic and military resources across more than one problem set—that math favors Beijing. Add that some Chinese strategists have indicated that North Korea could help Beijing prevent U.S. intervention on behalf of Taipei during a large-scale Taiwan contingency.

As the United States exerts more pressure on Beijing to squeeze Pyongyang in response to more frequent and sophisticated missile and nuclear tests, China’s incentives to coerce North Korea to the point of submission grow weaker, not stronger. Ultimately, China will prioritize advantage in strategic competition with the United States over defanging its unruly ally. Beijing pays reputational and material costs for that stance, and appears ready to continue to do so due to the importance China places on the larger strategic questions at play.

China has demonstrated this preference quite clearly in its response to the U.S.-ROK decision to deploy the THAAD missile defense system. THAAD provides a key component of a layered defense to protect South Korea from North Korean ballistic missiles. But Beijing ignores this legitimate security need because THAAD also has radars that Beijing believes can see into China and surveil its military activities. (U.S. officials insist China’s worries are disingenuous.) China has reacted to the THAAD decision with a graduated campaign of economic coercion against South Korea, targeting pop stars and television shows, the tourism industry, and consumer-goods companies to try to force Seoul to reverse the deployment. Official steps have been supplemented by a wave of anti-ROK popular patriotic protests and instances of vandalism, which Beijing often tolerates when it wishes to signal displeasure to foreign countries.

Some have argued that Chinese leaders have tired of Kim Jong Un’s antics and are considering alternative policies. However, there have been very few outward manifestations of such a shift, save for Xi’s foregoing any meeting with Kim since the latter took power. While China agreed to temporarily suspend imports of North Korean coal, a major component of bilateral trade, recent news indicates that enforcement of the ban may be more than a little leaky. This laxity in truly clamping down on North Korea follows a pattern noted in a recent U.N report on DPRK sanctions enforcement. Beijing’s incremental steps toward tougher sanctions implementation usually amount to little more than feints at leadership; Their intended purpose is to garner praise and deflect criticism without fundamentally changing Beijing’s stance.

The administration needs to carve out a role that China can countenance without becoming overly reliant on assistance from Beijing that will likely never materialize.

In sum, Washington needs to temper its expectations about what Beijing will deliver given the incentives discussed above. The administration needs to carve out a role that China can countenance without becoming overly reliant on assistance from Beijing that will likely never materialize. This is not to say that the United States and its partners should forgo pressuring China to act on North Korea—quite the opposite. Carefully calibrated pressure can elicit positive contributions, particularly when North Korea exhibits egregious behavior. However, such pressure must be applied in a balanced way. Too little pressure, and Beijing will shirk action in favor of the status quo; too much pressure, and Beijing will buck at the sense that China itself has become the proxy target. Getting the balance right while still increasing the heat on Pyongyang means bolstering alternative pathways of exerting pressure on the DPRK.

Four Focuses

So what should be done beyond trying to convince or coerce China into solving the North Korea problem? The Trump administration is still in the process of articulating their policies on North Korea, China, arms control, and Asia more broadly, so the current plan is not clear. A smart U.S. approach to Pyongyang would deepen and improve legacy efforts on economic and military affairs while working with regional allies and reconsidering its diplomatic approach. Four areas deserve particular attention.

First, U.S. policymakers should seek to institutionalize trilateral cooperation with Japan and South Korea. This requires a stable bilateral relationship between Tokyo and Seoul. The Obama administration’s efforts on this front, which included helping broker the December 2015 “Comfort Women” Agreement and holding an extended series of trilateral meetings at the deputy secretary level, fostered an unprecedented degree of practical cooperation between these three democracies. Thankfully, leaders in both countries have thus far been able to shelter practical defense cooperation, namely the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), from political storms. But further institutionalization will be required to hedge against political changes leading to another ebb tide in Korea-Japan relations. The Trump administration will need to stay active and engaged to help keep the bigger picture of regional politics in perspective and avoid a breakdown that could hamper cooperation on North Korea issues. Assigning an administration point person for the effort, like the Obama administration did with Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, can help keep the essential but often-unsexy work of alliance management moving forward.

Second, tightening enforcement of existing sanctions and furthering North Korea’s diplomatic isolation will be crucial. While China dithers, Washington should leave no stone unturned in cracking down on Pyongyang’s relations with the rest of the world. Money is fungible, so every dollar kept out of the Kim regime’s hands coming from countries such as Uganda, Malaysia, or Sri Lanka is equivalent to stopping the same from China. Enforcing sanctions on North Korea merits top billing in U.S. bilateral relations around the world. Even if dollar amounts are small, the symbolism matters. By pushing the rest of the world as hard or harder than Beijing, the United States and its partners can demonstrate that Washington is not targeting China unfairly for enforcement, but rather that Beijing’s lax enforcement takes them out of the global norm.

Clamping down further on sanctions requires having personnel with the right expertise in leadership jobs. The Trump administration has announced the nomination of Sigal P. Mandelker as Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence; this position and its direct reports should be filled immediately. The administration should also consider prioritizing sanctions expertise elsewhere in the intelligence community, as the Obama administration did by appointing David S. Cohen as deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. As a general matter, the Trump administration should draw on the financial-sector backgrounds of many of its appointees in support of innovation in making sanctions more robust and effective. The recent actions to knock remaining North Korean banks off the SWIFT system will not likely have a major effect on the Kim regime’s ability to move money, but the principle of comprehensive isolation was important nonetheless.

As a general matter, the Trump administration should draw on the financial-sector backgrounds of many of its appointees in support of innovation in making sanctions more robust and effective.

Third, the administration should explore additional ways to bolster deterrence. This means getting the military assets and plans in place to deny North Korea the successful use of a nuclear weapon and enable clear retaliation should general deterrence fail. Former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter threatened to shoot down a North Korean ICBM test. President Trump tweeted a vague declaration that such a feat “won’t happen.” Backing up these threats, the failure of which would be a huge blow, requires maximizing the chance of getting a “kill” against a North Korean ICBM. To this end, the administration should devote additional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets to the North Korea problem. Given finite resources, this means moving resources away from the Middle East despite ramped-up campaigns in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Additionally, the United States should consider additional ways to use cyber operations in support of deterrence, while being mindful not to exacerbate Pyongyang’s incentives to “use them or lose them” in conflict.

Fourth, the Trump administration should consider direct talks with North Korea. It goes without saying that the United States should not grant concessions up front in order to engage in talks. But Washington should not be afraid of communicating directly with North Korea. Obviously it rankles to sit down at the negotiating table with a regime whose actions intentionally outrage and provoke, and whose negotiating history lacks sincerity. But the alternative—a road to war with few off-ramps—is much worse. Policymakers should consider alternative negotiating forums and structures in the hopes of avoiding the familiar dynamics that have failed in the past.

One idea would be to repurpose the P5+1 format (United States, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany) that succeeded for the Iran talks. Folding in non-regional interlocutors that enjoy more distance from the issues and thus can claim some degree of independence could help; those powers also have a demonstrated preference for diplomatic outcomes. And the P5+1 parties have both experience negotiating together and depth on nuclear issues and verification challenges. Excluding Japan and the ROK from talks might seem strange, but it would mirror the way Israel and Saudi Arabia were left out of the talks with Iran. The format helped keep the talks focused narrowly on nuclear issues rather than trying to fix every regional and historical disagreement with Tehran at once. The narrower scope made an agreement possible. Washington should simultaneously ramp-up security cooperation and provide a constant stream of briefings to Tokyo and Seoul to ease concerns they may have, as were provided to Tel Aviv and Riyadh in the Iran context. A revival of the P5+1 structure is by no means flawless or the only option, but it provides an example of another way to consider the problem of diplomacy with the Kim regime.

Relying on China to solve the North Korea problem is a recipe for failure. A more multifaceted approach based on these four lines of effort holds out the best hope to confront the threat while avoiding catastrophe.