China Is the Key to North Korea’s Denuclearization. Trump Is Throwing It Away

World Politics Review, 05.04.2020
Kimberly Ann Elliott, académica (U. George Washington) 

People watch a news program about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to North Korea at a railway station in Seoul. (AP/Lee Jin-man).

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un showed up to cut the ribbon at the opening of a fertilizer factory late last week, thereby quashing rumors that he was dead or perhaps incapacitated as a result of botched heart surgery. Disappearing for weeks at a time, as he did last month, is not unusual for Kim. But his failure to appear on April 15 at ceremonies celebrating the birthday of his grandfather and the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung, triggered a whirlwind of rumors.

Because he is just 36 and his children are all quite young, there was also rampant speculation as to who might follow Kim and what a power vacuum at the top might mean for regional peace and stability. The uncertainty of the past few weeks—and the potential that political instability in North Korea could lead to a strategic miscalculation with disastrous results—underscores why the past four American presidents have made it a priority to eliminate the country’s nuclear weapons and missile capabilities.

Economic sanctions have been the primary tool for inducing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons, but the United States needs cooperation to make them work. Washington has maintained broad sanctions on trade and financial relations ever since the Korean War in the 1950s, so presidents since Bill Clinton have repeatedly turned to the United Nations Security Council to increase the pressure. China, which supported North Korea with troops in the war, is its main trading partner and source of financial aid today. China is also a permanent member of the Security Council, all of which makes its support crucial if sanctions are to be effective. But the final report of the U.N. panel of experts that monitors the North Korea sanctions, which was released last month, documents serious erosion in implementation and enforcement, including by China.

This is a time when Washington needs international cooperation, especially from Beijing, to address this critical national security problem. Instead, President Donald Trump seems intent on punishing China as he frantically tries to shift blame for his disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, despite the U.S economy being in free fall—and China being a major source of medical supplies needed to battle the virus—Trump revived his threats to use tariffs against China if it fails to comply with the terms of the “phase-one” trade deal signed in January.

Beyond undermining the chances for improved Chinese cooperation, Trump’s inconsistency and mixed signals have repeatedly undermined his own administration’s efforts to address the North Korean nuclear threat. Trump initially took a hard line, threatening “fire and fury” against the Kim regime and eliciting international support for stiffer sanctions. Fearful perhaps that Trump’s rhetoric could lead to military conflict, the U.N. Security Council approved harsh new sanctions against North Korea. And for a time, China enforced them reasonably effectively, despite its past support of Pyongyang and its usual ambivalence about sanctions.

But Trump turned on a dime after his 2018 meeting with Kim in Singapore, where the two leaders hit it off. While he kept the “maximum pressure” sanctions in place, Trump openly praised Kim and, despite the lack of substantive results, credulously insisted that the two were on a path to eliminating the nuclear threat from North Korea. Even after a second summit meeting between Trump and Kim in Hanoi in March 2019 failed to produce an agreement on next steps, Trump continued to say nice things about Kim and sent more mixed signals on sanctions.

In the month after the Hanoi meeting, the Treasury Department announced new U.S. sanctions against two Chinese shipping companies for helping North Korea evade the U.N. sanctions. But Trump then promptly undercut the Treasury Department and said he was rescinding those new sanctions. The Treasury Department tried to explain it away as a misunderstanding and said that the president was talking about other, yet to be announced sanctions. But the damage to U.S. credibility was done.

Not surprisingly, China concluded that maybe Washington wasn’t so serious about cracking down on the Kim regime, and its enforcement of the economic sanctions weakened. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Pyongyang last June in a sign of improved relations; Beijing later announced that trade in the first half of 2019 had increased almost 15 percent compared to the same period of the previous year. There were also reports that Chinese tourism to North Korea “spiked” over the summer.

The U.N. experts panel has documented the many and increasingly sophisticated ways that North Korea evades sanctions. According to a report last year, Pyongyang used cybertheft and hacking techniques against financial institutions and cryptocurrencies to generate as much as $2 billion in revenue. The latest and final report includes satellite photos showing self-propelled barges carrying banned North Korean exports to Chinese ports. There has also been an increase in ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products well beyond the restricted amounts that the U.N. resolutions allow Pyongyang to import for humanitarian reasons. Though China denies it, the report cites confidential sources saying that Chinese authorities were provided real-time evidence of smuggling and did not respond.

Trump sent even more mixed signals both to Pyongyang and to regional allies by downplaying the regime’s resumption of missile testing last year. Kim had announced a moratorium on missile and nuclear weapons tests in late 2017 when U.S. and North Korean officials were exploring talks to reduce tensions. But when Pyongyang resumed firing shorter range missiles that threaten Japan and South Korea, Trump brushed them off, saying essentially that they weren’t a big deal. He is apparently only concerned about long-range, intercontinental missiles that could threaten U.S. territory. Yet the resumed missile tests are a serious concern to American allies in the region, and any ballistic missile tests are a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

At a time when Kim’s disappearance reminded the world of the risks of instability from the insular, nuclear-armed country, Trump continues to squander opportunities to maintain a united front and send a strong and consistent message to Pyongyang. Moreover, the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities is just one of a number of issues where Washington and Beijing need to cooperate to find solutions, even as they clash over trade and other issues. But Trump, who is only concerned with his reelection campaign strategy, is trying to look tough on China by threatening retaliation and tariffs, no matter how shortsighted or dangerous that is.

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