President Donald Trump sees China as the key to resolving the stand-off with North Korea. He is right, but for the wrong reasons.
China is in a position to offer both sides what they most want – North Korea with strategic reassurance against external attack and the U.S. and its allies with a guarantee of North Korean denuclearization. This scenario would, however, require both China and America to play unfamiliar roles – China as the lead and the U.S. as a supporting actor.
Trump demands that China simply coerce its troublesome ally into giving up the estimated 50-60 nuclear weapons that it possesses along with the means to produce more.
Yet the reality is that China will not squeeze North Korea so hard as to risk regime collapse, which would bring enormous refugee flows into China and possibly the reunification of an American-allied Korea. Neither outcome is acceptable to Beijing.
The Chinese publication Global Times recently hinted at a deeper Chinese role: “China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral. If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime …, China will prevent them from doing so.“
While the statement warns of Chinese neutrality should North Korea strike first, it also offers North Korea a carrot. As relations have worsened between China and North Korea, their 1961 mutual defense treaty has become a dead letter. Although not authoritative, the Global Times editorial may signal that China once again seeks to reassure North Korea that China is committed to North Korea’s defense against external attack.
Why is this important? Since the end of the Korean War, North Korean leaders have lived in mortal fear that enemies – South Korea, the United States and Japan – would seek to overthrow the regime. This fear became more acute after the demise of the Soviet Union, which had offered North Korea arms and protection.
America’s vast military power along with a record of promoting regime change abroad has sharpened North Korea’s insecurities. In January 2002, George W. Bush labeled North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, as part of an “Axis of Evil.” Months later the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.
Particularly instructive for North Korea was U.S. participation in the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Gaddafi had, in 2003, sought to win favor with the West by voluntarily giving up Libya’s fledging nuclear weapons program. Instead of bringing security, this step left him more vulnerable.
These stark realities have motivated North Korea’s persistent pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, with brief periods of respite in response to international pressure.
On occasion, the U.S. has recognized that North Korea’s main motivation for possessing nuclear weapons is to deter U.S. efforts to bring down the regime. On August 1, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated: “We do not seek a regime change. We do not seek the collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel. And we’re trying to convey that to the North Koreans. We are not your enemy.”
But the impact of such reassurances are undercut by contrary statements, such as CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s recent declaration: “As for the regime, I am hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime from this system (i.e., the nuclear weapons program). The North Korean people I’m sure … would love to see him go.” It would be difficult to craft a statement more likely to convince North Korean leaders that a nuclear deterrent is essential to their survival.
This confusion is partly a product of the circumstances that currently hobble American diplomacy: an erratic president, a weak Secretary of State and vacancies in the key positions of Ambassador to South Korea and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia. Although a diplomatic neophyte, U.S. Ambassador to China and former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad’s close ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping could help in cutting through the tangled messaging.
More fundamentally, however, the U.S. has a credible commitment problem: Even if we promise not to attempt to overthrow the North Korean regime, there is little chance that Kim Jong-un, will consider such a commitment sufficiently believable to bring about denuclearization.
This is where China comes in. With a credible security umbrella extended by China, there is at least a chance that North Korea might be willing to relinquish its nuclear capability, especially if combined with other steps, such as a lifting of sanctions, a peace treaty to mark the formal end of the Korean War and a lowering of the U.S. military profile in South Korea.
This is a long shot. North Korea and China would have to overcome a recent history of mutual distrust. China’s security guarantee would have to take concrete form, rather than mere words. Naval War College Professor Lyle Goldstein has proposed that China station troops on North Korean soil so as to create a tripwire similar to the role that U.S. troops play in South Korea. North Korea could feel confident that the U.S. and South Korea would refrain from attack if doing so meant an expanded war with China.
China would, in addition, oversee the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and serve as guarantor against its resurrection.
China will be reluctant to lash its security to an unpredictable North Korean regime. But if the alternatives are either war or regime collapse across its border, then Beijing may be willing to take risks to avoid such outcomes. Kim Jong-un will certainly bridle at the loss of independence that Chinese oversight would bring and he would have to give up the dream of reunifying Korea under his family’s control. But if Kim wants a deal that guarantees his regime’s survival and a path out of international isolation, then China must play a bigger role.
Such a solution would thrust China into a leadership position in Northeast Asia, diluting, in some degree, American influence. Perhaps neither Chinese nor American leaders are ready for such a transition. Yet it may offer the best chance for peace.