China's Turn to Deal With North Korea
Chinese President Xi Jinping seems interested in embracing the role of global steward -- champion of the liberal political and economic order the U.S. administration seems uninterested in promoting. Now is his moment to prove he’s serious.
China’s erstwhile client North Korea has become an urgent threat to stability -- Xi’s stated top priority -- from one end of Asia to the other. Japan’s military is now on its highest state of alert, after the North’s latest round of missile tests landed in Japanese waters. The first elements of a powerful U.S. missile defense system, known as Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), have landed in South Korea; the system, which China fiercely opposes, could be operational by next month. In Malaysia, meanwhile, North Korean agents allegedly used a banned nerve agent to assassinate dictator Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, who had reportedly been under Chinese protection. Kim’s regime is now holding Malaysians in North Korea hostage, while Malaysia is preventing North Korean diplomats from leaving the country.
After the assassination, China cut off any further coal imports from North Korea this year. But the impact of the move remains uncertain. And, as a recent United Nations report makes clear, North Korean agents are continuing to use Chinese middlemen to fund the regime’s illicit missile and nuclear programs.
Wednesday’s proposal from Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi for North Korea and the U.S. to back down simultaneously -- the former by halting nuclear and missile tests, the latter by suspending joint military exercises with South Korea-- is constructive. But it’s been raised before and has little chance now: The U.S. has already ruled out any actions that might reward Kim for bad behavior.
China may have legitimate reasons for not wanting to go further and risk destabilizing the Pyongyang regime. The mainland would bear the brunt of any refugee exodus from the North and faces the unsettling prospect of a unified Korea -- and U.S. troops -- along its border. Chinese leaders may also be right that the U.S. needs to find a way to sit down and negotiate with North Korea, even if talks don’t lead to the elimination of its nuclear arsenal. Left unchecked, the North could within a few years deploy a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. If talks can halt its progress before then, they are worth pursuing.
The best way for China to use its resources is to bring North Korea to the table in a frame of mind to negotiate. It could start by backing a UN effort to end the standoff with Malaysia. Then it should send a message to Kim by working with U.S. and UN investigators to target the mainland banks and companies funneling cash and illicit weapons technology to the North. Meanwhile, China should quietly sort out with the U.S. when and how to initiate talks with the North -- and what to do if, as is likely, they fail.
Granted, none of this will be easy. At the same time, China should not be looking the other way at Kim’s recent behavior -- or worse, blackmailing South Korea using methods that undermine the bilateral free-trade agreement between them.
Xi’s speech at Davos this year was received with genuine enthusiasm among Asian leaders eager to promote continued trade and globalization in the face of a populist backlash in the West. Now is China’s opportunity to build on that fragile support.
--Editors: Nisid Hajari, Michael Newman.
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