JHI on the Issues 2016: Can China “Solve” North Korea for Us?

Candidate Statement: At the first presidential debate, Donald Trump suggested that China "should go into North Korea" to solve the nuclear problem for us: "I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it's over. At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can't take anything off the table. Because you look at some of these countries, you look at North Korea, we're doing nothing there. China should solve that problem for us. China should go into North Korea, China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea."

Summary: While Trump is correct that the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” has yielded few results (North Korea has qualitatively and quantitatively improved its nuclear weapons capabilities), his policy recommendation is both flawed and dangerous. The idea that China can “solve” North Korea has been around for years. Yet North Korea remains strategically too valuable to Beijing, and it is not certain how much leverage China actually has over Kim Jong-un, who is clearly determined to lock in North Korea’s nuclear status. Moreover, Trump’s proposal would surrender our ability to shape Northeast Asia’s geopolitical environment and would discourage South Korea and Japan, leading to a weakened relationship with both. Still, the U.S. should encourage China to remain involved alongside the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and others in the region to deter North Korean provocations.

Talking Points:

  • Allowing China to “solve” North Korea would misplace U.S. strategic priorities and weaken our alliance structure in East Asia by alienating Japan and possibly causing South Korea to tilt more towards Beijing.  It would also send a terrible signal to our allies elsewhere.
  • Beijing still prioritizes the stability of the Kim regime over denuclearization and thus has never shown real inclination to pressure North Korea and change Pyongyang’s behavior. Instead, China has acted as the regime’s lifeline, accounting for about 90% of North Korea’s trade.
  • Beijing has consistently watered down or ignored UN sanctions on North Korea. Just this March, China watered down the list of North Korean ships targeted by UN sanctions in response to North Korea’s nuclear test.
  • China likely has abetted North Korean evasion of UN sanctions, including on proliferation. For example, Chinese news sources trace Beijing's support for the North Korean nuclear weapons program to the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. In 2012, North Korea paraded its intercontinental ballistic missiles, showing off their Chinese-manufactured transporter erector launchers (TELs). Just last month, the United States sanctioned a Chinese industrial manufacturing and equipment firm for engaging in money-laundering on behalf of the regime in Pyongyang. 
  • Beijing perceives North Korea a useful strategic buffer to U.S. forces in the Korean peninsula and to U.S. strategy in Asia
  • Beijing is also willing to support North Korea, however problematic it may be, because it is, so far, unwilling to accept the possibility of a unified, democratic Korea.
  • For JHI’s approach to North Korea, read Choosing to Lead.

Questions the Press should be Asking:

  • How would President Trump persuade the Chinese government to "solve" North Korea? 
  • Do you support a continuation of Obama’s “strategic patience,” or a different approach?
  • Do you believe a return to the Six Party Talks is desirable, and if so, why?
  • Should the world acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear power and adopt a policy of deterrence and containment?
  • Should Washington work more closely with Beijing, or with its allies in Seoul and Tokyo on efforts to pressure North Korea?
  • Do you support a return to the Bush-era financial sanctions that targeted the Kim family directly?
  • Other than the potential elimination of the nuclear threat, what effect would China “going into” North Korea have on the Asia Pacific region, as well as the United States?

Analysis: Since the fall of the Soviet Union, China has been the main benefactor of the Kim regime in North Korea.  China has provided an economic and political lifeline to Pyongyang through trade, direct aid, and diplomatic support. China has also blunted the effect of international sanctions. Politically, Beijing has limited pressure on Pyongyang either bilaterally, in the UN, or through the now-defunct Six Party Talks. While long believed to hold a magic key that it could use to “shut down” the regime, Beijing has instead shielded North Korea from the most severe effects of international pressure.

Beijing appears to believe that North Korea represents a valuable pawn in the competition for power in Asia, one that absorbs enormous amounts of U.S. energy and resources. It also finds U.S. activities to bolster South Korea in the face of North Korean aggression annoying.  Moreover, it is questionable the degree to which Beijing actually has direct leverage over the Kim family.  Kim Jong-Un’s murder of his uncle Jang Sung-taek, long believed to be a conduit between the Kims and Beijing, in December 2013, both reveals the limits of Beijing’s power over the younger Kim and calls into question its ability to influence the regime.

The Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” has resulted in Pyongyang further perfecting both its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Senior U.S. military leaders, including the commanders of Northern Command and U.S. Forces Korea, have said that North Korea likely has the capability of placing miniaturized nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles.  Estimates from the United States indicated the North may have up to 16 warheads, though Chinese sources indicate as many as double that number.  Recent missile tests indicate that Pyongyang is aiming at reaching distances of nearly 2,500 miles from its homeland, using the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile, and it has tested engines for an intercontinental-range missile.

America’s credibility in Asia would be undermined by handing off the North Korean problem to China. It would be a signal of U.S. retreat in Asia.  In particular, it would cause severe repercussions in South Korea, possibly leading Seoul to develop an indigenous nuclear capability. It would also cause significant anxiety in Japan, and could bolster those calling for Japan to be more independent of Washington, not to mention the consideration of an independent nuclear deterrent.  Additionally, if China were to “go into” North Korea to solve the nuclear issue, the strategic problems caused by potential unification of the Korean peninsula and the resulting competition for power in Asia at large would not necessarily be solved, and may, in fact, be exacerbated.