China Thinks the U.S. Holds Key to Solve North Korea Crisis

Updated on
  • They agree on ultimate goal of denuclearizing Korean peninsula
  • They differ on timeline, best way to rein in Kim Jong Un

U.S. Wants Vote on Harsher N. Korea Sanctions

U.S. President Donald Trump has regularly called on China to stop North Korea’s nuclear advancement, even saying in July it could “easily” end the crisis. In Beijing, however, leaders think the opposite.

While the U.S. and China agree the Korean peninsula should be rid of nuclear weapons, they differ on how best to achieve that. The sense of urgency is heightened in Washington, as the U.S. suddenly finds itself potentially in range of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons, whereas China and North Korea’s other neighbors have lived with the threat for years.

A man watches a TV screen showing US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in Seoul.

Photographer: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

Trump has said China should use its economic leverage as North Korea’s top trading partner to quickly end Kim’s nuclear ambitions.

China, however, sees no need to trigger a potential catastrophe on its border over what it regards as fundamentally a dispute between the U.S. and North Korea. Indeed, Beijing has warned that rhetoric from both sides -- the U.S. has threatened military action against North Korea -- is making things worse.

In China’s eyes, Kim won’t give up his nuclear arsenal even if Beijing shuts off its oil supply -- despite the economic pain that could cause. That’s because his weapons program gives him a deterrent against the U.S., which North Korea frequently says wants to attack it. It also is central to his ability to hold onto power at home by presenting an image of ultimate strength and control to North Koreans, including his generals. 

The only way Kim may stop, the thinking goes, is for the U.S. to offer him a security guarantee, such as signing a legally binding non-aggression treaty. But former U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill says the U.S. is concerned that, even with a treaty, the regime can’t be trusted not to use its weapons to attack a U.S. ally such as South Korea.

Read more: U.S. targets North Korea violators, with ZTE’s help

“Without holding the key to the DPRK’s security concerns, China has no leverage to convince this foreign nation to stop its nuclear program,” Fu Ying, chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s legislature, wrote in a May paper for the Brookings Institution, using the initials for North Korea’s formal name.

“The U.S., which the DPRK sees as the source of threats to its security, has been neither interested nor willing to consider responding to the DPRK’s security concerns,” Fu said.

China’s logic extends to the current debate at the United Nations Security Council, where the U.S. has called for a vote on Monday on a draft resolution to cut off North Korea’s oil supply after it conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test. North Korea has threatened that if harsher sanctions are approved, the U.S. will pay “a due price.”

China has repeatedly said it will support further UN action if it helps restart talks with North Korea. Unlike Trump, Beijing’s leaders fundamentally oppose a war to resolve the situation.

“China has reiterated many times that military force cannot be an option for the settlement of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the day after North Korea detonated what it called a hydrogen bomb. A “peaceful solution will be the only correct way.”

North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency accused the U.S. of having carried out tests of nuclear bombs and missiles while decrying similar actions by Pyongyang. “It is the gangster-like logic that cannot convince anyone,” KCNA said in a Saturday commentary. “Its talking about war and threat of harsh sanctions will enhance only the Korean people’s revolutionary consciousness and add justification to the DPRK’s access to nukes.”

China has backed North Korea since the Korean War, in part to have a buffer state that keeps U.S. military forces from sitting on its border. While Mao Zedong once described ties as being as “close as lips and teeth,” the relationship has become strained since Kim and Xi Jinping came to power, and some China observers say Trump is overstating Xi’s ability to influence what the regime does.

Kim’s antics have also started to affect China’s strategic interests. A proliferation of missile defense systems by the U.S. and its allies could thwart China’s own military capabilities. There’s environmental risks if radiation spills across its northeastern border. And Kim might do something that triggers an actual war.

Read more: What are the options for dealing with North Korea?

“China does not have the power to dictate to the DPRK,” said Victor Gao, who was a translator for late leader Deng Xiaoping. “And now that the DPRK is in possession of nuclear weapons, the likelihood that the Chinese could dictate any terms is even more remote.”

China has sought to play a mediating role, backing progressively tougher sanctions like a ban on coal exports while proposing that both sides freeze hostilities and return to talks. Those actions, regularly dismissed as insufficient by Trump’s administration, have led to public spats with Pyongyang. North Korea’s state media said in February that China was “dancing to the tune of the U.S.”

The Communist Party-affiliated Global Times said in an August editorial that China should stay neutral if North Korea starts a war with a missile attack, but intervene if the U.S. and South Korea seek to topple Kim’s regime.

“China opposes both nuclear proliferation and war in the Korean Peninsula,” the paper said. “It will not encourage any side to stir up military conflict, and will firmly resist any side which wants to change the status quo of the areas where China’s interests are concerned.”

Since coming to power in late 2011, Kim has detonated four nuclear devices, test fired some 90 missiles including two intercontinental ballistic missiles, executed his uncle and murdered his brother, both of whom were seen as close to Beijing.

Some China-based academics say Beijing’s policy has enabled North Korea’s nuclear buildup. Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University, wrote in Foreign Affairs in July that China should abandon support for North Korea because its nuclear program threatens regional stability.

Beijing could cut off oil supplies or halt all trade with North Korea to show its readiness to abandon Kim if needed, Zhu said separately in an email on Sept. 8. “Then it might leave Pyongyang to reconsider if their WMD risk could last,” he said, a reference to weapons of mass destruction. “It seems that Pyongyang is betting on impossibility of China’s full abandonment of it.”

The publication of dissenting views has given rise to a school of thought that a policy change on North Korea is under discussion. Still, a day after Zhu’s article was published, Geng from the foreign ministry blasted “certain people” who have played up “the so-called China-responsibility theory.”

One common view in Beijing is that Trump’s war rhetoric has only made Kim more insecure, prompting him to accelerate his weapons program.

“Achieving the denuclearization goal on the Korean peninsula is a complicated tango dance,” said Gao, who is director of the China National Association of International Studies in Beijing. “Everyone needs to tango in sync, first and foremost the U.S. and China.”

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