Engaging China to Address the North Korean Security Threat

As Washington seeks to achieve more favorable security conditions in the upcoming negotiations with North Korea, the Trump administration must continue to maintain pressure on Pyongyang. However, the administration misses a crucial part of the North Korean challenge: China. By working together, Washington and Beijing can exert economic pressure that might coerce North Korea to stop its nuclear program.

Image courtesy of Roman Harak, © 2011

North Korea’s recent willingness for diplomacy comes against the backdrop of a series of efforts to increase economic pressure on Pyongyang. Since 2006, the United Nations, as well as the United States and its allies, have imposed a series of sanctions against the country. However, these sanctions have had limited impact on North Korea’s economy, which grew by 3.9 percent in 2016, comprising the country’s best economic performance in the last 17 years.

North Korea’s international economic relations is central to its economic performance. Contrary to popular belief, the hermit country has trade relationships with more than 30 countries in Africa and the Asia Pacific that allow Pyongyang to evade the sanctions. More crucially, 85 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade is with China, making Beijing’s cooperation a key element of exerting economic pressure on North Korea.

China understandably has strong incentives to continue its relationship with Pyongyang and prevent the Kim Jong-Un regime from collapsing. A collapse would have two potential implications. Firstly, it would create an influx of North Korean refugees into northern China. In fear of a potential refugee crisis, China has already constructed several camps along the China-North Korea border. Secondly, a collapse of the North Korean regime could result in a unified Korea with South Korean leadership. Given the close U.S.-South Korea military cooperation and the presence of American troops in South Korea, Beijing does not view a reunified Korea to be in China’s best interests. As a result, the Chinese government intends to maintain its position of promoting stability in North Korea.

Yet, as North Korea enhances its nuclear and missile capabilities, Chinese policymakers are increasingly concerned about the security challenges that Pyongyang poses. Although China has not allowed sanctions to cripple North Korea, Beijing is gradually increasing economic pressure on the regime by restricting oil exports and reducing imports. In September last year, China even banned the import of North Korean textiles, widely believed to be the North’s biggest source of foreign revenue, following the recent UN sanctions. As a result, China’s imports from North Korea reached a four-year low in December 2017, exerting significant economic pressure on Pyongyang.

By cooperating with Beijing, Washington can threaten to exert even greater economic pressure if North Korea reneges on its recent commitment to denuclearization.  However, to work more closely with China, the Trump administration must change its current heavy-handed approach to U.S.-China relations and prioritize economic diplomacy. Last year, the Trump administration promised punitive measures against China because of currency issues—a tone that Washington now seems to have softened. By changing its heavy-handed approach towards China, the current administration can pave the path for closer bilateral cooperation on North Korea.

Firstly, Washington must recognize Chinese fears about a potential regime collapse and its geostrategic implications. The Xi administration is particularly concerned about the influx of North Korean migrants in the event of a North Korean regime collapse. In this context, Washington would do well not to pursue the end of the Kim Jong-un regime as a diplomatic objective, at least in the short term.

Secondly, given Chinese worries over the potential military threat, Washington would do well to assuage Chinese security concerns. In exchange for tougher enforcement of sanctions, the United States could offer that no American troops would be deployed north of the 38th parallel—which divides North and South Korea—if the regime falls. Lastly, an offer to pause temporarily the deployment of additional military equipment and personnel in South Korea will also give China a stronger incentive in adopting and enforcing additional sanctions on North Korea.

In exchange for Chinese cooperation, the current administration could adopt more trade-friendly policies for China, which has stated explicitly that it does not wish to enter a trade war with the United States. One such move could include exempting China from the new steel tariffs, a provision that the administration has already applied to Canada and Mexico. Such gestures might help cement stronger U.S.-China cooperation regarding North Korea.

In light of the security threat that Pyongyang poses, economic pressure and sanctions are a step in the right direction. However, to make these sanctions effective and exert significant economic pressure on the North, Washington needs China’s help. As the current administration prepares for negotiations with Pyongyang, creating incentives for Beijing might be the missing puzzle to the North Korean security challenge.

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