Trump Needs a New China Approach, Ex-North Korea Negotiators Say

  • U.S. ‘deep dive’ with China key to a breakthrough: Hill
  • China reluctant to trigger collapse of Kim Jong Un’s regime

North Korea Says Missile Was a Prelude to Guam

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The response to North Korea’s provocations tends to follow a typical pattern: The U.S. and its allies condemn Kim Jong Un, then quickly turn their sights on China.

That routine held after North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan on Tuesday. Leaders from Japan, Australia and the U.K. were among those calling on China to use its economic leverage to pressure Kim’s regime. In response, the foreign ministry in Beijing said more sanctions wouldn’t solve the problem.

Former U.S. negotiators on North Korea say now is the time to break the cycle. With Kim appearing to shun any attempt at talks, they see U.S. President Donald Trump having more success focusing on engaging China, including addressing its reasons for continuing to support its longtime ally.

“We need to tighten up the understanding with China about what we expect from them and what they can expect from us,” said Christopher Hill, who led negotiations for the U.S. during the last three rounds of what was known as the six-party talks on North Korea. “This means a kind of deep dive with the Chinese. This does not mean just talking about how they gotta solve this. It needs a really comprehensive approach.”

Trump, who said in a Tuesday statement that “all options” remain on the table with North Korea, followed with a Twitter post Wednesday in which he said “Talking is not the answer!” Later in the day, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said “we’re never out of diplomatic solutions.”

While Trump’s comments after North Korea’s latest missile made no mention of China, he has regularly sought to pressure President Xi Jinping to take more action. After North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile in July, Trump lashed out on Twitter, saying China does “NOTHING” to help and the U.S. “will no longer allow this to continue.”

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Trump followed up with an investigation into alleged China intellectual property violations, and slapped sanctions on some companies based in China that the U.S. accuses of conspiring with North Korea to evade sanctions. Authorities in Beijing blasted both moves.

“Working with China is important and needs to be pursued, but I think to some extent the Trump administration has pursued it more as an outsourcing option,” said Hill, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. “I don’t think that is the right approach.”

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who brokered a rapprochement with China in the 1970s, outlined a potential way to deal with China in an editorial this month. He urged the U.S. to stop pressuring China alone to rein in Pyongyang and instead seek a common position with its leaders.

“An understanding between Washington and Beijing is the essential prerequisite for the denuclearization of Korea,” Kissinger wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “It requires a corollary U.S.-Chinese understanding on the aftermath, specifically about North Korea’s political evolution and deployment restraints on its territory. Such an understanding should not alter existing alliance relationships.”

Regime Collapse

So far, it’s unclear if any such discussions have taken place. General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said the U.S. and China didn’t talk about scenarios for North Korean regime collapse in meetings with Xi and other officials in Beijing this month. 

Hitoshi Tanaka, a former Japanese deputy foreign minister who helped broker then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s surprise 2002 visit to Pyongyang, said that China, the U.S., Japan and South Korea should discuss scenarios for North Korea’s future.

“Balancing the risk between North Korea collapsing and having nuclear weapons, China didn’t used to enforce sanctions,” Tanaka said. “But now, with the extent to which North Korea has developed missiles, the best scenario for China is for North Korea to denuclearize without collapsing.”

As North Korea’s largest trading partner and its main ally, China has been reluctant to risk Kim’s downfall by cutting off food and fuel sales. Leaders in Beijing fear that an economic and political catastrophe could wash over its borders and the U.S. military gain influence in a unified Korea.

‘Responsible Major Country’

At the same time, it wants North Korea to stop its provocations. China signed off on United Nations sanctions this month aimed at cutting a third of the rogue state’s exports, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Wednesday that China is working with the UN on further measures.

“As a member of the Security Council and a responsible major country, it is necessary for us to make our opposition clear,” Wang said.

While Kissinger is right strategically, the U.S. would still need to persuade China it’s in its best interests to work together, according to Christopher Green, senior adviser on the Korean peninsula at the International Crisis Group.

“It is not clear to me that given all the other things going on in the world -- frictions over trade, South China Sea -- that the White House has the means to achieve that,” he said.

Japan and South Korea, U.S. allies in the region, may resist if they feel there is the risk of being shut out of any U.S.-China dialogue. President Moon Jae-in wants to be in the driver’s seat in any talks regarding North Korea, according to a South Korean government official who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive matters.

James Kelly, who led U.S. negotiations in the first three rounds of the six-party talks, said that pressure will start to grow in South Korea and Japan to obtain nuclear arsenals of their own if there’s no resolution soon.

“That will have implications for China as well as the U.S. alliances,” said Kelly, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. “The U.S and China need to come to an agreement on what needs to be done.”

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— With assistance by Andy Sharp, Yuki Hagiwara, Peter Martin, and Kanga Kong

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