The Right Way to Play the China Card on North Korea

Korea Chair Platform

*This Korea Chair Platform first appeared as a Washington Post Opinions piece on July 5, 2017.

After North Korea's ICBM test, China and Russia have called for the U.S. to pay for a freeze on North Korea's missile testing by halting annual U.S.-ROK military exercises, removing THAAD missile defense from Korea, and presumably resuming heavy fuel oil shipments to compensate North Korea. Here is an alternative, bipartisan idea by former Obama and Bush administration officials that calls on China to stop freeriding and to start paying its fair share, rather than habitually placing the burden of negotiation on the U.S.

North Korea’s July 4 intercontinental ballistic missile test raises hard questions for the Trump administration: Is there any path forward that does not lead either to war or to living with a nuclear North Korea that can hit the continental United States? Can effective diplomacy prevent the “major, major conflict” that President Trump has talked about?

There is growing recognition that the old playbook won’t work. Reviving old agreements North Korea has already broken would be fruitless. The Chinese won’t deliver on meaningful pressure. And a military strike could lead to all-out war resulting in millions of casualties. We need to consider a new approach to diplomacy.

That means playing the China card, but not the way it has been played until now. It’s not enough to ask China to pressure Pyongyang to set up a U.S.-North Korea negotiation. China has to be a central part of the negotiation, too. China, rather than the United States, should be paying for North Korea to halt and roll back its nuclear and missile programs. Here’s the logic.

The best option would be for China to agree to work with us and South Korea toward getting new leadership in North Korea that is less obsessed with weapons of mass destruction. But this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future for a litany of reasons: China’s historical ties to its little communist brother; its concerns about regime collapse; its uncertainty about alternative viable power centers to the Kim family; its mistrust of U.S. motives; and its strained relations with South Korea.

The next option would be for China to cut off, or at least severely curtail, its commerce with North Korea, which accounts for 85 to 90 percent of North Korea’s trade, to restrain Pyongyang. But as Trump has recognized in recent tweets, China is unlikely to go this far right now, for the same reasons.

So we are left with a less dramatic form of carrots-and-sticks diplomacy, backed by increasing pressure. But it can’t be a repeat of previous rounds.

In the past, China has largely left it to the United States to put inducements on the table. Together the nuclear agreements executed by the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations cost the United States a half-billion dollars for denuclearization via monthly energy-assistance payments to Pyongyang. (Japan and South Korea also paid their fair share; China paid only a small amount in the Bush agreement.) Meanwhile, China continued to enjoy its trade relationship with North Korea, extracting mineral resources at a fraction of world market prices.

Now China is back, pushing us to the bargaining table, as evidenced by its statement with Russia after Tuesday’s missile test calling for the United States to give up military exercises in exchange for a missile-testing freeze.

We should reject the freeze-for- freeze. But beyond that, we should tell China that it has to pay to play. The basic trade would be Chinese disbursements to Pyongyang, as well as security assurances, in return for constraints on North Korea’s program. China would be paying not just for North Korean coal, but for North Korean compliance.

In a Chinese freeze-and-rollback agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency would monitor compliance. If North Korea cheated, China would not be receiving what it paid for. The logical thing would be for it to withhold economic benefits until compliance resumed.

Of course, China might continue to fund the regime anyway. Or North Korea could very well reject such a deal from the start. But these scenarios would leave us no worse off than we are now. And it might well put us in a stronger position. Because China didn’t get what it paid for, or got the cold shoulder from Pyongyang, it might become more receptive to working with us and our allies on other options.

Why would China agree to this plan, given that it has never been willing to put its economic leverage to real use before?

Beijing wants a diplomatic off-ramp to the current crisis. President Xi Jinping is still seeking a good relationship with Trump in this critical year of China’s 19th Party Congress. Furthermore, Chinese frustrations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have grown after his execution of family members and regime figures close to China. All this may give the Trump administration marginally more leverage than its predecessors had.

We also have an important stick. If China refuses to proceed along these lines, we would be better positioned to pursue widespread secondary sanctions against Chinese firms doing business with North Korea beyond the Treasury Department’s sanctioning of a Chinese bank last week. We would be left with little choice.

Of course, this idea is no silver bullet. It doesn’t answer the question of how to get verifiable, enforceable, durable constraints on North Korea. It won’t go very far if what North Korea really cares about is extracting something from the United States. But North Korea is the land of lousy options. We should be looking for a strategy that gives us not only a better chance of success but also some advantages if it fails.

Jake Sullivan was national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and director of policy planning in the Obama administration. Victor Cha is former director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council and served as deputy head of the U.S. delegation for the six-party talks in the George W. Bush administration. He is currently a senior adviser and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Professor and Director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University.
Photo credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair

Jake Sullivan