Like Trump, China Has No Good North Korea Options: QuickTake Q&ABy
With few choices for curbing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, U.S. President Donald Trump appears focused on the same strategy employed by his predecessors: Pressure China to act against its unruly ally. That approach has failed in the past because China has long seen any potential solutions as worse for its security than the status quo. It’s unclear whether President Xi Jinping is revising those calculations with Trump in power.
1. What is China’s policy on North Korea’s weapons?
While China says it also wants nuclear weapons purged from the Korean peninsula, the country has advocated diplomacy as the only way to achieve that goal. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi this month urged both sides to make conciliatory gestures as a way to revive talks. China’s approach has failed to gain traction, however: North Korea snubbed requests to meet top diplomats including Wang this month.
2. What is China’s biggest concern?
Stability. China’s ruling Communist Party wants to avoid any actions that could bring catastrophic nuclear war to its doorstep, send refugees flooding over the border or loosen its own grip on power -- a prospect more likely in a devastating military conflict.
3. What are Xi’s options?
Xi could do everything from sitting on hands to overthrowing leader Kim Jong Un. Doing nothing carries the risk that Trump will make a unilateral military strike, and start a trade war. Regime change threatens to establish a new, U.S.-allied Korea on its northeastern frontier as any leader outside the Kim dynasty would struggle to gain legitimacy. More likely is that China will support stronger sanctions against North Korea, including cutting off access to finance, food and fuel without jeopardizing Kim’s survival.
4. How much sway does China hold over North Korea?
Not as much as it used to. Perpetually fraught ties between the Korean War allies were further strained after Kim took power in 2011, particularly after he executed an uncle who had served as a Chinese conduit. Although diplomatic exchanges between the two sides continue, neither Xi nor Kim has visited the other’s capital. China’s chief source of leverage is now trade, as it accounts for more than four-fifth’s of North Korean global commerce.
5. What might prompt China to act?
China supplies about 90 percent of North Korea’s energy and sold it more than $100 million in steel last year and fears that cutting off such vital exports could destabilize the regime. That calculation could change if China views a unilateral U.S. military strike as credible -- a prospect pushed by Trump officials after the April 6 missile attack on Syria, which he disclosed during dinner with Xi.
6. Has China’s approach changed?
Some. In February, China temporarily banned coal imports from North Korea after the murder of Kim’s half-brother who was living under Chinese protection, prompting state media in Pyongyang to accuse Beijing of “dancing to the tune of the U.S.” While Chinese officials have only backed United Nations-approved sanctions, the Communist Party-run Global Times this month said the government should consider restricting oil imports to North Korea or even agree to a U.S.-imposed financial blockade if Kim violates UN resolutions.
7. Why doesn’t China want a united Korea?
China’s desire to keep U.S. forces off its border was a key reason for its intervention in the Korean War, which ended in the current stalemate more than six decades ago. If North Korea collapsed and was absorbed by the South, the unified government would probably seek to maintain its U.S. alliance as insurance against an even more powerful neighbor: China.
8. What would a deal look like?
China could ratchet up economic pressure to coerce Pyongyang into agreeing to U.S. terms for talks. There, a grand bargain could be reached in which the U.S. addresses Kim’s security concerns in return for him halting his push for nuclear bombs and missiles that can deliver them to North America. Trump has harshly criticized a similar deal China helped broker between former President Barack Obama and Iran. Kim must also consider the fate of Libyan leader Moammar Al-Qaddafi, who abandoned his weapons of mass destruction in 2003 only to be toppled and killed in a U.S.-backed uprising less than a decade later.
The Reference Shelf
- A QuickTake explainer on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
- A QuickTake Q&A on Trump’s North Korea options.
- A look at North Korea’s nuclear and missile program.
- An index of Global Times editorials.
— With assistance by Keith Zhai