Pop quiz: Which presidential candidate said the following about how to address North Korea’s bellicose behavior?
And, our goal there, in my view, is to work and lean strongly on China to put as much pressure. China is one of the few major countries in the world that has significant support for North Korea, and I think we got to do everything we can to put pressure on China.
The answer is Bernie Sanders at the last Democratic presidential debate, but I’d understand if you didn’t get it right. A glance at the GOP candidates on North Korea reveals variations on the same answer: China has the most leverage over North Korea, so lean on China to lean on North Korea.
Take Donald Trump’s answer during the last GOP debate:
China says they don’t have that good of control over North Korea. They have tremendous control. I deal with the Chinese all of the time. I do tremendous — the largest bank in the world is in one of my buildings in Manhattan. I deal with them. They tell me. They have total, absolute control, practically, of North Korea.
Trump’s follow-up on “CBS This Morning” was pretty much the same answer, just with that added je ne sais Trump!
The thing is, as I wrote last month after the alleged H-bomb test, this answer doesn’t cut it. Let’s dispense with the fiction that China doesn’t know what it’s doing with respect to North Korea. China knows exactly what it’s doing with respect to North Korea. Beijing is frustrated and flummoxed by Pyongyang. Nevertheless, when faced with a choice, China clearly prefers not pressuring North Korea and tolerating its behavior to pressuring North Korea and risking the collapse of its buffer state.
All the reporting since that post confirms this basic preference ordering. It’s not like the United States hasn’t tried to pressure China into pressuring North Korea. This is from the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon and Josh Chin:
Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to China late last month to press Chinese officials to back tougher sanctions on North Korea. His meetings with his Chinese counterpart Foreign Minister Wang Yi were tense, and they agreed only that the countries should take swifter action at the U.N., according to U.S. officials. …
Chinese officials resisted Mr. Kerry’s plea for tougher sanctions, citing adverse effects to Chinese businesses.
Mr. Kerry warned the Chinese that if they didn’t toughen their response to the North the U.S. might have to use secondary sanctions or deploy an advanced U.S. missile defense system to the region, according to U.S. officials.
That was before the missile test. After the missile test … hey, nothing much has changed! This is from the New York Times’s Jane Perlez and Choe Sang-Hun:
In contrast to calls from South Korea, Japan and the United States on Sunday for tougher sanctions against North Korea, China said early dialogue — meaning the resumption of talks among major powers and North Korea — was its preferred way to rein in Mr. Kim. Those negotiations, led by China and known as the six-party talks, fell apart in 2009 after North Korea walked out.
In response to the Foreign Ministry’s statement, one person on Weibo said: “I feel ‘regret’ for the Foreign Ministry.”
That last sentence is the biggest tell. Perlez and Sang-Hun note that even Chinese citizens are embarrassed by the government’s tolerance of Kim Jong Un, and Beijing still ain’t doing much to pressure Pyongyang. Instead, it’s censoring Weibo. Beijing even appears to be hiding some of the bilateral trade from its official statistics.
As Stephan Haggard noted after the GOP debate: “China has the ability to exercise greater leadership on the issue, but not the interest in doing so. Put differently, it depends on what you mean by ‘control.’ But thinking we are successfully going to outsource this problem to China is indeed ‘mostly false.’ ”
So what is the proper response to the DPRK’s behavior? You’re basically seeing it unfold in slow-motion. South Korea has closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which will hit Pyongyang in the pocketbook. New sanctions legislation is moving through Congress that should squeeze Pyongyang’s ability to move money in and out. The United States and South Korea have now formally begun talks about deploying the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. This will really irk China, but Seoul is now at the point where it doesn’t care so much about that. This is a marked change in tone from conversations others and I had with South Korean officials last summer.
None of these are perfect solutions, but they do offer a response to Pyongyang’s provocations and raise the costs to China for sitting on its hands. And they are the exact same measures that all of the candidates for president would be doing if they were actually in office right now. It’s not a great solution, but at this moment in time it’s the best of a really bad set of options.
North Korea is now the greatest nonproliferation threat in the world, according to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence. It’s worth wondering what the presidential candidates are thinking about this problem. But let’s dispense with the fiction that China doesn’t know what it’s doing with respect to North Korea. China knows exactly what it’s doing with respect to North Korea.
Oh, and future debate moderators: It would be nice if the candidates were pushed off this stock answer the next time they’re asked the question.