China Is Not the Answer to North Korea

by Tim Shorrock

From President Trump to Capitol Hill, there is only way short of war to stop North Korea’s from becoming a nuclear-armed ICBM State: Let China Do It. Even after Pyongyang proved last week that its long-range rocketry skills are improving with each test, the Washington consensus seems to be that Beijing is the only power capable of turning the situation around.

China “could easily solve this problem,” Trump pouted in a morning tweet on Saturday after North Korea’s second ICBM test in a month. Yet it does “NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk.” Nikki Haley, his UN ambassador, chimed in that “China is aware they must act.” Vice President Mike Pence added his voice during a trip to Estonia. “China has a unique ability to influence decisions by” North Korea, he said on Sunday.

This came after a week in which North Korea and its close ties to China dominated the talk in Congress and the think-tank circuit in Washington.

“The road to denuclearization [in North Korea] undoubtedly goes through Beijing,” declared Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), as he opened a July 25 hearing on North Korea before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A few days later, in response to Pyongyang’s latest ICBM test, Gardner introduced legislation to “punish” what he called the North’s “enablers.” “China is responsible for ninety percent of trade with North Korea and my legislation targets entities involved in these activities,” he said.

At the Senate hearing, Susan Thornton, the acting secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, outlined the recent actions taken by the administration against the Bank of Dandong and other Chinese entities for acting as a “conduit” for North Korean money laundering. “We recognize the continued importance of Beijing doing more to exert pressure on North Korea,” she told the panel.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party-aligned Center for a New America Security last Friday released a fresh report calling on the US to use the threat of sanctions on China as a way to force Beijing into taking a more aggressive posture towards Pyongyang.

“If China believes North Korea’s nuclear development will lead to US military action—which is not an outlandish idea—China may go along with greater economic pressure,” said Peter Harrell, a CNAS fellow who helped develop sanctions against Iran, Russia, and Syria as a State Department official during the Obama administration.

But will this “let China do it” mentality accomplish anything?

Scholarly Skepticism

“Washington is preoccupied with getting Beijing to put more pressure on Pyongyang,” Leon V. Sigal, a former US diplomat who has met frequently with North Korean officials over the years, told the Senate hearing on Thursday. “We must not lose sight of the fact that it is North Korea that we need to persuade, not China.”

In response to questions from Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), Sigal said that policies of pressure and sanctions can only work “if nuclear diplomacy is soon resumed and the North’s security concerns are addressed” through direct US-North Korean talks. Sigal is the director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council.

James F. Person, a historian who has specialized in North Korea’s diplomacy with China and the former Soviet Union, similarly argues that pressuring China to lean on North Korea will backfire. “Pyongyang will perceive any effort to get them to denuclearize as another overly intrusive move and lacking respect for North Korean sovereignty,” he told a July 10 press briefing organized by the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a US government think tank in Washington.

“We can’t afford to outsource our policy to China because that’s asking North Korea to do what they most resent,” Person added. “Ultimately, we will have to talk to the North.” He and Jane Harman, the former California congresswoman who runs the Wilson Center, elaborated on this idea last fall in The Washington Post. “Only the United States—the supposed existential threat that justifies [North Korea’s] nuclear and ballistic missile programs—can fully address Pyongyang’s security concerns,” they wrote.

Now that Pyongyang has the capability to launch ICBMs that can travel great distances, Person added at the July forum, North Korea will continue to test to give it the best possible leverage when the door opens for talks with Washington. “They want to make sure when they get to the negotiating table that they’ve pushed their program as far as they can,” he said.

The idea of direct talks has also been promoted by several former high-ranking officials, such as William Perry, who negotiated with North Korea on its missile program as secretary of defense in the Clinton administration. On the eve of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s visit to Washington in June, Perry was one of several retired senior officials who signed a letter to Trump urging him to begin direct negotiations without any preconditions with the North.

Last week, in an interview with Senator Bernie Sanders, Perry explained his position. “North Korea is not a crazy nation,” he told Sanders. “They are reckless, ruthless, but they are not crazy. They are open to logic and reason. Their main objective is to sustain their regime. If we can find a way of dealing with them that they can see gives them an opportunity to stay in the regime, we can get results.”

Direct Negotiations

Most analysts believe that direct negotiations would have to begin with the North offering to freeze its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for the US and South Korea scaling down their annual military exercises. At the Wilson briefing, New York Times reporter David Sanger suggested that the US has a “window of opportunity” to offer such a deal soon because the main US-ROK exercises take place in the spring. “Between now and next spring, we wouldn’t lose much” if the US temporarily halted the exercises, he said.

In an interview, Sigal cautioned that, for any deal to be accepted in Washington, a North Korean moratorium would have to go beyond the freeze of current programs as suggested by China and Russia. He said that would involve North Korea stopping its uranium enrichment and plutonium production as well as its nuclear and missile testing. That, in turn, would require the United States to pledge to end its “hostile policy,” as demanded for decades by North Korea.

“You’ve got to suspend the production of fissionable material too,” Sigal told me. He said the US would “have to pay for that, not in money terms but in terms of moving away from the hostile policy” that North Korea would like to end. “Some of that’s going to involve military exercises, some of that’s going to involve [lifting] sanctions, some of that’s going to involve starting the peace process. But that’s what’s got to be worked out. That’s the first stage agreement that may be possible.”

On Monday, China urged the US to open direct talks with Pyongyang. The US and North Korea “hold the primary responsibility to keep things moving, to start moving in the right direction, not China,” UN Ambassador Liu Jieyi declared, according to Al Jazeera. “No matter how capable China is, China’s efforts will not yield practical results because it depends on the two principal parties.”

Tim Shorrock is a Washington-based journalist who writes about US national security and foreign policy for many publications at home and abroad. He is the author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing. Photo: William Perry (courtesy U.S. Army)

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  1. Second paragraph, first sentence, “Trump pouted”.
    End of credibility began there and as did my interest in anything this progressive jerk wrote.

  2. China is the key to demilitarizing North Korea. And the only reason China doesn’t fear their bordering neighbor’s militarization is because they are complicit in North Korea’s militarization. Could you imagine how upset China would be if South Korea was testing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. And, of course, China would be going nuts if Taiwan was doing what North Korea was doing.

    But saber rattling by the US is not the solution to this problem. A 50% tariff on all products imported from China should do the trick, until China finally pressures North Korea into demilitarizing. And this tariff should be increased to 100% if China fails to end North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program within a years time.


  3. It takes courage to prevent war. Let us hope we have that courage and start direct negotiations soon… as the article points out the window for diplomacy is not open ended.

  4. Not just dealing with NK directly, US MUST find out WHO help NK ICBM progress so fast. US should Never have a Backstabber ‘ally’ and India is the Chief Suspect. The reason it is not China is because of fear of Chernobyl like downwind, massive refugees and not Russia either for fear of more sanctions. Not Pakistan as there is no more to be gained. A Q Khan have done helping the nukes part but not the Deliverable part. IT IS India that help the Deliverable part.EVEN the NK submarine sub testing cold launch could be learned from India as India use pontoons to test her ICBM so there is opportunity to transfer this sub missile launch too to NK.

    Why India? Because India have a Need for raw uranium to Cover up her tracks in the Charkalere secret uranium enrichment facility near Bengaluru which is off limits to US inspection. IAEA cannot guarantee full compliance, so India play this Whack A Mole to make nuclear bombs from enriched uraniums.

    How do India get away with it? Counter trade, off the financial system in exchange, NK demand blueprint for improving rocket canister metallurgy improvement so no explosions, no fuel leaks in last two launch unlike the previous ones.

    Not only this ICBM longer range improvement, India also teach NK satellite technology as late as last year, and UN caught India doing that, even her ex ambassador admitted to that, so NOW, NK can have more accurate CEP to target NYC, Washington DC with precision and not land in a field or sea and her rocket won’t veer off course mid way towards US.

    US politicians, media, White House barking up the wrong tree or they fear to admit her fake ally India is the real culprit? Of course it is impossible to say 100% it is India helping with rocket canister improvement, just like it is impossible to say ‘slam dunk’ with Iraq War uranium yellow cake from Niger as George Tenet ex CIA told Bush to justify attacking Iraq but India definitely is chief culprit as she also find this a Golden Opportunity to Mislead, Dupe US people hoping for a Sino US conflict to benefit herself greatly.

  5. China is backing North Korea and supplying nuclear and missile technology to them because it suits China’s agenda for North Korea to play the bad guy and drive the US out of South Korea. What the North wants is a Korea united under the rule of the Kim dynasty. That suits China just fine. The 9 dash line, etc represents an attempt to drive the US out of the Western Pacific and make it a Chinese lake. Denying Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan the support of the US is a necessary part of that. We have foolishly outsourced almost all of our chip production and electronics manufacturing to Taiwan and South Korea so controlling them will cut off our supply of electronics.

    To China, we are their main rival and must be weakened as much as possible. That is the point of all this.

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