North Korea Is Ultimately China's Problem

How Washington Can Get Beijing to Step Up

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Dalian, China in this undated photo released in May 2018. KCNA via REUTERS

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

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