North Korean leader Kim Jong Un; Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Wong Maye-E, Michael Dinneen/Associated Press)
Columnist

For decades, the United States has been trying to get China to use its influence and power to isolate North Korea. Now, experts are asking, why doesn’t the United States try working with North Korea to isolate China? That could be a game changer not just for the North Korea crisis but for the entire region.

The Kim Jong Un regime is no friend of Beijing. In fact, China-North Korea relations are at a historic low point since the young Kim came to power. Kim has refused to meet with senior Chinese leaders, and he even apparently assassinated his own half-brother, who was living under Chinese protection. The time might be right to approach Kim with a better deal for his regime and his people by offering him a grand bargain that would take North Korea away from China and bring it into the camp of the United States and its allies.

It’s a difficult gambit, for sure. But even if the United States can’t peel North Korea fully away from its chief sponsor state, opening that avenue of diplomacy might still be useful toward breaking the stalemate between Washington and Pyongyang.

“It’s not crazy. Actually, it’s something that the Chinese worry about,” said former State Department official Robert Carlin, who has dealt with the North Korean government for decades. “It’s something that the North Koreans have laid in front of us many times.”

Of course, the United States and China have a complicated and important relationship that includes equities which must be considered. Some senior figures, such as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, argue that the only way to solve the North Korea crisis is to work first with Beijing and go from there.

“An understanding between Washington and Beijing is the essential prerequisite for the denuclearization of Korea,” Kissinger argued in the Wall Street Journal, saying the United States and China should talk about the political future of North Korea after denuclearization.

Other experts contend that if Beijing won’t earnestly and honestly engage in that conversation, the United States should see whether the Kim regime might.

“When it comes to the things the Chinese fear most about the Korean Peninsula, number one is war, number two is losing North Korea to the U.S.,” said Joshua Eisenman, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. “At the very least, we should be expanding the list of items on the agenda and not limiting it to the nuclear issue.”

If the United States were to offer North Korea a package of economic benefits, security assurances and greater legitimacy, cooperating with the new engagement-friendly leadership in South Korea, it might be more appealing to Pyongyang then the relationship the regime has now with Beijing, the argument goes.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last week in Manila that he wants to come up with a way for the North Korean government to join the community of nations.

“We hope, again, that this ultimately will result in North Korea coming to the conclusion to choose a different pathway, and when the conditions are right that we can sit and have a dialogue around the future of North Korea so that they feel secure and prosper economically,” he said.

Even if turning North Korea against China in the short term is impossible, some experts see the need to broaden the discussion with North Korea beyond our problems with that regime, which also include its imprisonment of three Americans. Playing on Pyongyang’s independent streak could be useful to encouraging that conversation.

“Historically, the Koreans always mistrust the Chinese. They like Chinese money, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into political influence,” said Jenny Town, assistant director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “There’s always an opportunity to further antagonize that relationship.”

By focusing on pressure and prisoners only, we are asking the North Koreans to talk about only the things American wants, but none of the things they want, said Town. Plus, the United States hasn’t done much to develop trust and incentives that could actually increase U.S. leverage if and when negotiations begin.

“We’ve been using diplomacy as a reward for good behavior, instead of using it to achieve our objective,” she said. “The more we isolate them, the less leverage we have. The more we build mechanisms to create opportunities to do business, it would go a long way to building trust and influence.”

The Trump administration is looking for new ideas and new options for solving the North Korea crisis, but meanwhile it is using the same old tools: sanctions, diplomatic pressure and appeals to China to do more. There’s no real confidence that any of it will work, but over and over again we’re told that these are the best of the universally bad options.

By talking to the North Korean regime about something Washington and Pyongyang are both concerned about — China — the Trump administration could reset the chess board.

“At the end of the day, it’s a grand bargain. But first, it’s a conversation,” said Eisenman. “We’ve tried to work with China on North Korea for 20 years. At some point we have to accept the failure of that policy and adopt a new approach.”