It was no surprise that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s first known meeting with a foreign leader since taking power in 2011 was his March visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Over the last two decades, Kim and his father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, have met more with Chinese leaders than with all other foreign leaders combined. As North Korea’s neighbor, largest trading partner, and most important patron, China is both the country most responsible for facilitating Pyongyang’s provocations and the one with the most to lose should the regime collapse—always a possibility for so shambolic a polity.
And yet in the months prior to U.S. President Donald Trump’s explosive announcement in March 2018 of a forthcoming summit between him and Kim—which still seems likely to happen on June 12—U.S. officials have assumed far too much responsibility for what is in large part China’s problem. In other words, the North Korean nuclear issue, and indeed the entire debate over the North, has become far too Americanized. It is one of the oddities of Northeast Asian diplomacy that the U.S. government has taken ownership of an issue more than 5,000 miles from its mainland when regional players with far greater “skin in the game” should be playing a much larger role in the process.
Because North Korea is more a problem for China than the United States, Trump in Singapore should make clear to Kim the future limits of U.S. political and diplomatic involvement while reminding him that the roughly 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea will remain on the peninsula. He should also privately communicate to Xi his respect for North Korea’s position in China’s sphere of influence. Indeed, on June 1, Trump said China and South Korea would be responsible for rebuilding North Korea: “That’s their neighborhood; it’s not our neighborhood.” Those remarks fit with Trump’s first instinct on North Korea, which was to push China to do more. And although Trump could have followed through on it far more subtly and effectively, this instinct was right. He and U.S. officials and journalists have unnecessarily Americanized the issue ever since.
Why is North Korea ultimately China’s problem? For one, Beijing fears a North Korean collapse far more than Washington does. In such an event, or in the case of a serious destabilization, Beijing would potentially have to handle thousands, or even millions, of refugees fleeing across the porous border between the two nations. The ruling Chinese Communist Party is ill-equipped to deal with a refugee crisis: it lacks a resettlement policy and has not dealt with a mass influx of refugees since the 1970s. Moreover, although North Korea’s economic impact on China is minuscule overall, trade with it aids the economy of China’s northeast, a “rust belt” region left behind in China’s economic modernization. A collapse, or even a continuation of extreme sanctions, would have a noticeable negative economic impact on that area.
A collapse would also see the peninsula likely unify under a pro-U.S. government in Seoul, potentially allowing the United States to stage troops near China’s border. The June 12 summit may reduce U.S. forces on the peninsula as a concession to Kim, but Southern-led unification would obviate any such deal. This remains a major concern of the Chinese Communist Party.
In addition, a North Korean collapse could create a problem of loose nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons on China’s doorstep. These could fall into the hands of peripheral separatists from Xinjiang or Tibet, for example, or opportunistic global smugglers. And crucially, a collapse could foster the desire for statehood among the millions of ethnic Koreans living in China—who, unlike several other Chinese minorities, have not traditionally agitated against party rule in part because it is far better than living in North Korea.
Moreover, North Korea is simply not all that important for U.S. security. The great erroneous cliché of Western cable news reporting is that the Korean Peninsula teeters on the edge of war. It does not. And despite U.S. hawks’ insistence last year that Washington cannot live with a nuclear North Korea, it actually can: conventional deterrence has lasted 65 years, and nuclear deterrence should be stable, too, as the United States has learned to live with the development of nuclear weapons in other hostile states—such as Pakistan, the Soviet Union, and 1960s China. Kim has long shown himself to be rational enough to understand that any strike against the United States would be suicidal. And although the likelihood of Pyongyang attacking Seoul is slightly higher, it is still quite low given the U.S. alliance. North Korea’s provocations have been tactically, not strategically, dangerous for decades, with adverse consequences for Beijing. Outbursts from Pyongyang act as an obvious incentive for the United States, Japan, and South Korea to keep large, capable assets adjacent to China. If Beijing really wants Washington to retrench eastward and Japan to stay relatively disarmed, it must rein in North Korea, whose threats provide cover for allied deployments that arguably contain China, too.
Even as Pyongyang’s unlikely threats to launch a nuclear attack on the United States spooked Americans in 2017, China has been carrying the brunt of the externalities of North Korea’s misbehavior. When North Korea emerged as a methamphetamine producer, it was China that had to pressure Pyongyang to address a minor drug epidemic that spread into northeastern China. Similarly, when North Korea stashes its illicit funds in Chinese banks, it is Beijing that must rein in the corruption of party and financial elites this breeds—an issue Xi has championed. Beijing must also contend with the constant harassment of Western banking regulators over this issue, particularly as secondary and financial sanctions have emerged as tools to isolate North Korea and cut off its luxury goods inflow. This problem will only worsen as the Chinese banking system matures and further globalizes.
And should North Korea’s unmonitored nuclear program experience a Chernobyl-style meltdown, China will bear the brunt of the associated ecological costs. Fears of a North Korean Chernobyl have risen since a September tunnel collapse at the Punggye-ri test site reportedly killed more than 200 workers. Most of North Korea’s nuclear facilities are near the Chinese border to gain maximum distance from U.S. regional airpower, so any ecological externalities would hit China first.
Finally, an irresponsible North Korea dents China’s general claim to regional or global leadership. The English-language editions of its various media organs—CGTN, the Global Times, the People’s Daily—relentlessly and disingenuously reject the “China responsibility theory,” but China faces obvious prestige costs for its support of North Korea. Trump’s antics currently blur these costs, but Beijing resents being blamed—however correctly, in our opinion—for North Korean shenanigans.
THE RIGHT WAY TO PRESSURE CHINA
There are a number of steps Washington can take to pressure China to step up on North Korea. For example, it could put far more information in the public domain about North Korean financial dealings in China and the gray market luxury goods pipeline—illegal under multiple UN resolutions—that runs through China into the North. Beijing likely overlooks tremendous smuggling into North Korea, including trucks and mobile missile launchers. Such flagrancy could be called out.
China, through which roughly 90 percent of North Korea’s trade runs, has far more leverage over the country than the United States does.
Washington could also tie aspects of its greater regional military policy to Chinese dealings with North Korea. The more China moves to cut off North Korea, for example, the more the United States could signal restraint on regional military moves China intensely dislikes, such as missile defense, U.S. carrier visits, military exercises, and spy plane patrols.
China, through which roughly 90 percent of North Korea’s trade runs, has far more leverage over the country than the United States does. Washington should lower expectations about a deal with North Korea, as it gives Pyongyang, not to mention Beijing, too much power over Trump. It should plan to give Beijing a seat at the negotiating table and resist the urge to mostly negotiate with Pyongyang bilaterally. And instead of tweeting, as Trump did on May 21, that “China must continue to be strong & tight on the Border of North Korea until a deal is made,” Trump and top U.S. officials should express deference for Beijing’s plans on North Korea and begin discussing what Beijing managing the North Korea threat would look like.
The long-term goal should be convincing China that as a near superpower, or near peer of the United States, it no longer needs North Korea as a buffer state. In the 1950s and 1960s, when China was a stricken middle power, North Korea served a useful purpose. But with its economy likely to soon surpass that of the United States in size, with Japan and Russia in medium-term stagnation, and with India still far behind, China is in a strong geopolitical situation. It does not need an Orwellian gangster fiefdom guarding its northeastern flank. At some point Beijing will realize this, and it should be Washington’s goal to accelerate that recognition as rapidly as possible.