A shocking event has occurred in the meandering psychodrama of America’s relationship with North Korea: the world’s great powers have unanimously voted to intensify sanctions against the Hermit Kingdom, as Kim Jong-un continues to push his nuclear weapons program. The United Nations Security Council—which includes North Korea’s two biggest benefactors, China and Russia—seems to finally agree that Pyongyang’s behavior is unacceptable.
This is a major diplomatic victory for the Trump Administration. The president should not squander this moment.
First, let’s take a quick moment to see how we got here. Fact is, we’ve been here before. In 1994, the Clinton Administration concluded that the Kim regime had a working nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and had begun extracting nuclear material from it.
Understand, the Korean War never really ended. The war—which was never formally declared and was always technically a “police action”—had been fought to a stalemate in the mid-1950s and hostilities suspended with an armistice. Tens of thousands of troops remain stationed along the Demilitarized Zone along the 38th parallel between the North and South.
As time progressed, the United States and South Koreans moved on from paying much attention to the North, and the North grew increasingly isolated from the world. Pyongyang’s eccentric, violent leadership only grew harsher in its antipathy toward its neighbors. When it became clear that North Korea was on the cusp of building a viable nuke, the United States and its partners in the Pacific Rim understood it had to act to mitigate the danger—but their choices were all terrible.
Given the size and disposition of the North Korean military—and the fact that Bill Clinton had campaigned on rebuilding the U.S. domestic economy—the United States went out of its way to avoid escalating any conflict. Instead, Clinton pressed the international community to negotiate a deal: the West would provide North Korea with economic and food aid in exchange for Pyongyang giving up its nuclear program. It was a stupid, one-sided bargain. In practice, the North Koreans rebuffed UN inspectors and lied through their teeth about compliance (with a wink and a nod from China) while United States and its allies handed over large sums of money, food, and fuel. The North Koreans were more than happy to take the money to enrich the regime’s leadership and—unsurprisingly—continue surreptitiously developing nuclear weapons.
China’s Goals: Stability, Strategic Superiority
During the George W. Bush Administration, as America’s strategic focus shifted from Asia toward the Middle East, the United States relied on the Six-Party Talks (comprising mostly of regional actors) to bring an end to the continued nuclear brinksmanship of North Korea. They were unsuccessful. In 2006, North Korea tested its first nuclear bomb.
Shouldn’t China, which borders North Korea, be more worried than anyone about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program? No. The Chinese would rather placate the North Koreans. After all,the Chinese value stability on their border; they fear a unified Korean peninsula under Seoul’s control; they do not want American military bases popping up directly across from China’s border; and the Chinese fear the instability that would occur when millions of North Korean refugees would understandably flee their homes and attempt to gain entry into China. Plus, North Korea is a perpetual thorn in America’s side in the region. Each time North Korea precipitates a crisis in the region, it takes pressure off China diplomatically, and it allows Beijing to pretend to be America’s vital partner in Asia. From the Clinton to Trump Administrations, a growing consensus has formed among American policymakers that China holds the key to a peaceful resolution to the North Korea problem. Yet, until now, the Chinese have merely pretended to be interested in resolving the Korean dilemma.
With recent reports that North Korea is but 18 months away from having nuclear weapons capable of hitting the continental United States, the Trump Administration’s response has been put into overdrive—especially as Kim Jong-un continues to make threatening gestures in a clear attempt to bring the United States back to the negotiating table. This isn’t surprising: North Korea’s periodic blackmail and extortion has worked well for the better part of two decades. Of course, President Trump is unlike his predecessors. And the clearly defined timetable leaves little wiggle room for the Trump Administration, the way that previous North Korean nuclear developments left room for Trump’s predecessors.
Predicting What Trump Will Do
Is war the answer? As virtually every military expert has testified, any conflict on the Korean peninsula would be devastating on a scale not seen since at least the Vietnam War. America’s military leaders are understandably wary of such a prospect. But, as one general put it, just because we are only left with bad options on the Korean peninsula, doesn’t mean we don’t have to make a choice. I suspect that the otherwise intransigent China understands its stability is now more threatened by remaining intransigent on resolving the North Korean issue, than it is by working with the United States to craft a peaceful settlement over North Korea.
For all of my concerns over the recent onerous sanctions regime the United States Congress crafted which targeted Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela, the sanctions have had one salutary effect: it has sent a clear signal to both Russia and China that the United States is not playing business-as-usual. Donald Trump’s presence in the Oval Office changes all metrics for America’s enemies. For example, President Trump’s recent off-the-cuff remarks regarding the North Korean situation in which he nonchalantly stated that his administration was “handling it,” likely caused a severe amount of dyspepsia in both China’s Politburo and in the Kremlin. This ominous statement was purposely ambiguous and, given Trump’s ability to follow through on other ambiguous, ominous statements, neither the Chinese nor Russians could risk the Trump Administration following through on its belligerent threats against North Korea. After a litany of aggressive actions in recent months—Trump’s good progress in the war against the Islamic State; his recent attacks against provocative Syrian military units, and his use of the MOAB against ISIS allies in Afghanistan—these actions have likely forced Beijing and Moscow to reassess their own strategies toward North Korea.
Recently, the Chinese have told the North Koreans to stop their missile tests. While the North Korean response to China’s demands are unknown, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said the discussions with his North Korean counterpart were “thorough.” In other words, China is getting serious. Also, China likely fears the deployment of America’s anti-ballistic missile defense system, THAAD, to the Korean peninsula. Missile defense doesn’t just deter North Korea, after all; China’s burgeoning nuclear arsenal is its greatest strategic asset and the real muscle behind its ambitions in East Asia and the Pacific.
The Russia Factor
Meantime, Western and U.S.-imposed sanctions have left Russia reeling. Siding with the United States against North Korea could buy Moscow a bit of goodwill in Washington and on the international stage. The Chinese must navigate the dangerous diplomatic course of preventing Kim Jong-un from acquiring weapons to threaten the continental United States while preventing a U.S.-led war against Pyongyang. keeping the United States from warring against North Korea. Thus, Beijing is likely forming an alliance with Moscow, buying both countries vital time to ride out the diplomatic storm in the region by slowing America’s military response.
China’s leadership, which is not governed by the same short domestic political calendar that often drives our government’s decisionmaking, likely believes the U.S. fixation on North Korea is a passing phase to be managed with strategic patience. The longer the Chinese delay U.S. action, the more they can bog down the West in negotiations and possibly get America to abandon its current course without losing North Korea as a buffer. Or so they think.
Neither the Chinese nor the Russians should be fooling themselves: the Trump Administration will not accept a diplomatic solution unless it explicitly involves the de-nuclearization of North Korea (and, if it is not completed before a 18 month timeline, then all bets are off). For now, the United States pursue diplomacy as far as it can go—backed by force, and preparing for any and all contingencies.
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