The North Korean nuclear crisis is at its most severe and perplexing juncture. President Trump is pushing China to shoulder the burden to solve it as part of a deal entangling U.S.-China economic relations and regional geopolitics.
While China shares the strategic interest of a denuclearized North Korea, Beijing’s policy remains unchanged in wanting to avoid North Korean upheaval, an influx of migrants into China and U.S. troops occupying North Korea. In addition, Trump’s strategy encourages Chinese suspicions that American pressure is a calculated attempt to decisively degrade Beijing’s relations with North Korea. Consequently, a Trumpian boxing-in of North Korea via China is hard to imagine.
How have things come to this? The geopolitical dynamics of North-East Asia are characterized by mutual suspicions. This has long been true: George Alexander Lensen first pinpointed these continuing “Balance of Intrigue” dynamics in his aptly titled book about the Korean peninsula in the late 19th century. First, the U.S.-China relationship is permeated by a Cold War mentality of strategic distrust. U.S. perceptions are that China maintains a North Korean buffer state for leverage, while China believes the United States exploits North Korea as a pretext for missile-defense deployment in South Korea and Japan and for strengthening its alliance network to contain China.
Second, China-North Korea relations are at a historical low point. The assassination by North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un of his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, incensed China, which was seen as protecting him. The North’s continued missile tests have led China to cut off coal imports since February.
Third, heavy-handed economic sanctioning by China of South Korea in response to Seoul’s agreement to deploy the U.S.-supplied Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, anti-missile system has heightened South Korea’s insecurity.
Moreover, U.S.-Russian, Chinese-Japanese and Japanese-South Korean relations have been troubled. Poor Russia-U.S. relations prevent regional cooperation. Even if China complies with Trump’s demand for action against Pyongyang, Russia provides an alluring alternative for North Korea’s economy as a sanctions loophole. Chinese-Japanese relations resemble a scaled-down version of the rivalry between the established power of the United States and the rising power of China, and territorial disputes over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands continue to bubble over. Chronic bilateral issues between Japan and South Korea, which have hindered trilateral cooperation with the United States, may resurface. Newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said that his country “cannot emotionally accept” the 2015 comfort women accord with Japan.
Relations among all these states are caught in a vortex, one in which coordinated policies toward North Korea are rendered unfeasible. The most recent round of “six-party talks” between North Korea, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States was held in 2008. Since then, nuclear weapons have come to be viewed by Kim Jong Un as a necessity for his regime’s survival.
Nobody wishes for the military option. Joint, coordinated pressure in the form of unified carrots and sticks, as well as contingency planning in the case of regime collapse, is crucial. To that end, a framework for new multilateral talks among the five countries other than North Korea must be established as the start of the process toward a solution.
China-North Korea and North Korea-U.S. bilateral talks are necessary, too, but within the multilateral framework. The objective of five-party talks is not to isolate North Korea, but to get the regime back to the negotiating table by maximizing pressure. They must be a precursor to six-party talks. The entrance point for widening negotiations is a freeze on the North’s nuclear activities in the context of an eventual denuclearization exit path.
Stabilization of China-U.S. relations is the most vital. Russia-U.S. relations are politically difficult but strategically necessary to fix. China should stop bullying South Korea. Japan needs to proactively stabilize relations with South Korea and China. If Japan and South Korea can move to the forefront their common sense of exposure to an existential threat, which the United States also has begun to feel, then cooperation can become more productive and urgent based upon the principle that an attack on one is an attack on all. At the same time, Japan must take initiative to build trust with China through mutual recognition of our troubled history on the Korean Peninsula since the First Sino-Japanese War in the late 19th century. Reciprocal state visits by Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe, as proposed by Japan for 2018, would help keep the challenge of North Korea the region’s first focus.