Can China and the U.S. Cooperate on North Korea?

This article appeared on China‐​US Focus on August 3, 2020.
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As negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea stagnated, America’s relations with China plummeted. That makes improving ties more difficult in both cases.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has decided to turn China into a campaign issue. That gives Beijing little incentive to be helpful on Korea. Nevertheless, Deputy Secretary of State and former U.S. Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun remains hopeful of future bilateral cooperation.

First, he emphasized the two governments’ shared interests in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in late July. He told legislators that “North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs undermine our shared strategic interest in peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. China agrees that diplomacy is the preferred approach to resolving the issue of North Korea’s denuclearization.”

Indeed, contrary to frequent claims that China controls North Korea, Beijing often is exasperated with the behavior of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Their relations often were cold: Chinese President Xi Jinping refused to meet with North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong‐​un for seven years. Only after Kim arranged his first summit with President Donald Trump did Xi relent, probably concerned that he might be cut out by a deal between the North and U.S.

Second, Biegun emphasized the advantages of cooperation between Washington and Beijing: “I wouldn’t say that [China is] completely faithful in fulfilling their responsibilities under the international sanctions regime. But still, they do generally push in the right direction, and it is an area at least where we can have discussions.” He promised to “engage the Chinese on that issue.”

And engage the PRC the administration should do.

President Donald Trump should make one of his famous phone calls to Xi, urging the two governments to put aside their bitter disputes elsewhere to build on the progress created by the opening of contact between Washington and Pyongyang. However, the U.S. will have to do more than insist that the Chinese follow its wishes.

The PRC has three potentially contradictory objectives. One is to keep the Korean Peninsula nuclear‐​free. A nuclear DPRK might feel empowered and start a war. Or it might tempt the U.S. to start a preventive war intended to disarm the North. Finally, a nuclear North Korea would be even more independent of the PRC.

Another goal is to maintain regional stability. Intervening in the Korean War, which China’s Mao Zedong feared would lead to an American attack on the mainland, cost the PRC dearly. Beijing does not want a repeat, especially since all parties are now far better armed. Should any conflict go nuclear, China would be directly and negatively affected. A North Korean collapse also could have catastrophic consequences.

A third goal is to avoid enhancing America’s strategic position. The administration is pushing the two nations toward a new Cold War. An important aspect of Washington’s strategy is to contain the PRC. That objective would be advanced by a unified Korea allied with America and filled with U.S. bases and troops.

Thus, though Beijing could be tougher on the North in order to press denuclearization, those steps might destabilize the DPRK. In which case China might decide to tolerate Pyongyang’s nuclear program. The prospect of reunification creating an even more powerful U.S. ally dedicated to containing the PRC would make Beijing even less likely to put substantial pressure on the North.

If the administration wants Xi’s assistance, the U.S. should help the PRC square its conflicting objectives. That means preparing an attractive offer for North Korea while engaging Beijing, rather than cutting it out of the process. China should not fear losing influence to the ROK and U.S.

Washington also should offer to ameliorate the costs of instability. With the Pacific between the Korean peninsula and America, it is easy for Washington to accept a messy Korean denouement. In 2017 Sen. Lindsey Graham dismissed the prospect of nuclear war as being “over there.” To win Chinese backing, the U.S. should offer to share the cost of dealing with refugees, respect Beijing’s economic interests in the North, and accept Chinese military intervention to install a more pliable North Korean regime.

Finally, Washington should join with Seoul and promise that U.S. troops will leave if the peninsula is reunified. Otherwise, why should the PRC risk undermining its nominal ally and aid American efforts to restrict China’s activities in the region? In fact, it is unlikely that South Korea wants to be dragged into a war with China by Washington.

Of course, ultimate success would depend on winning North Korea’s assent to some form of disarmament. That requires making a good proposal––one that would help rebuild some trust with a regime well aware of the consequences suffered by other dictators who lacked or surrendered nuclear weapons.

Kim expressed his desire for better bilateral relations, which could be achieved by ending the ban on travel between the two states and establishing liaison offices. He also insisted on an improved regional environment. A peace declaration followed by negotiations over a formal peace treaty would help deliver a better atmosphere.

Finally, Washington should consider what limited deals would promote short‐​term disarmament and long‐​term denuclearization. Going back to the Hanoi summit, the U.S. and Pyongyang should discuss what Washington would be willing to trade for destroying the Yongbyon nuclear facilities. What would the U.S. be prepared to pay for eliminating additional launch sites and research facilities? And to insert inspectors in the North?

The U.S. should consult the PRC, requesting its advice and support. In particular, Washington should request that China toughen its sanctions enforcement but promise assistance to the DPRK if the latter accedes to America’s proposal.

The future of U.S.-China relations is in peril. However, Beijing and Washington could join together on the issue of North Korea. Admittedly, even serious cooperation would not be enough to reverse current trends. However, such efforts could become a catalyst to start working together on the two nations’ lengthy list of disputes.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.