The “China Factor”

China-USA FlagsA new round of shadowboxing appears to have begun in Washington over North Korea policy in the wake of Pyongyang’s two latest nuclear tests and unrelenting series of missile tests. For some time, the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” has found few defenders apart from its architects, and there is now a general consensus that the next four to eight years will require a different approach. The North Korean nuclear threat finally has assumed the “urgency of now” in policy circles, but that is where the consensus seems to end. Observers have generally advocated one of three responses: a new strategy based on military force, an intensification of sanctions and pressure, or a return to negotiation and engagement.

There is a lot at stake in this debate. Given the upcoming presidential transition, the winning idea might actually become the basis for policy under a new administration. Indeed, favorites for senior appointments in a Clinton administration such as Kurt Campbell, Michele Flournoy and Wendy Sherman have all weighed in of late. The controversy seems have resonated less with the American public, consumed as it is by a tumultuous presidential campaign that has left very little oxygen for serious foreign policy discussion. (North Korea staged a missile test hours before the third presidential debate, yet it still didn’t earn a mention among the “foreign hot spots” addressed.)

While US officials are consulting intensely with their South Korean counterparts, not enough attention is being paid to Beijing’s perspective, even though China would figure heavily into any prospective US action toward the North. By examining Beijing’s role in each of the three main North Korea policy strategies under debate in the United States, the “China factor” emerges as a decisive one, in ways that policy makers need to weigh carefully.

The Hawks

The most remarkable new feature in the North Korea policy debate is serious contemplation of military force as the only viable option left. Such calls to arms are couched in guarded terms: no one advocates an imminent attack on the Yongbyon nuclear complex, and none dare call this approach for what it would most likely be: the start of a second Korean War. Instead, national security figures such as Mike Mullen, James Stavridis and Victor Cha suggest that a “surgical” or “pre-emptive” strike almost certainly must take place before Kim Jong Un perfects the capability to hit the US homeland with a nuclear missile. During the Obama years, military options were off the table because of the cost that Seoul would have to pay for a strike on Pyongyang. As President Obama put it to Charlie Rose, “we could obviously destroy North Korea with our arsenals but … they are right next door to our vital ally, the Republic of Korea.” But with the South Korean government indulging in extremely bellicose rhetoric, integrated into recent US-ROK joint military exercises, that restraint seems to be vanishing before our eyes.

How might Beijing react to a US pre-emptive or surgical strike on the North? The question is often evaded, perhaps because the answer makes a military solution considerably less attractive. North Korea is, after all, China’s only defense treaty ally in the world, and is obligated to “immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal” to defend Pyongyang if attacked. Their 1961 treaty is often overlooked or trivialized—occasionally by Chinese academics themselves. But the agreement remains in force, underscoring North Korea’s unique place in Chinese foreign relations. To mark the 55th anniversary of the treaty’s signing in July, Kim Jong Un sent Xi Jinping a friendly note praising the pact as a “firm legal foundation” for the bilateral relationship.

To be sure, North Korea would be on its own if it were to attack US allies or assets in the region, let alone US territory. But if the United States launches a pre-emptive strike not to prevent a specific, imminent missile attack, but rather to prevent North Korea from perfecting an intercontinental nuclear strike capability, it is unlikely to meet Beijing’s standard for jus ad bellum. On the contrary, a strike of this nature could likely drive Beijing to side with the North in accordance with their 1961 treaty. In the furious military retaliation that Pyongyang would muster after a US strike, South Korea and the United States could not count on Beijing’s support and indeed may face Chinese intervention on the peninsula, as in October 1950. “Surgery” would rapidly descend into a bloodbath. “Pre-emption” would start a war.

The “Boas”

Despite these risks, or in willful ignorance of them, the military “solution” is no longer an outlier in the US debate over North Korea policy. Still, proponents of force do not hold the mainstream position. That distinction goes to advocates of intensified economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure and hard deterrence, such as Bruce Klingner, Evans Revere and Sung-Yoon Lee and Joshua Stanton. And unlike the hawks, these “boa constrictors” place China front and center, since draconian sanctions rely almost entirely on Beijing for implementation.

The boas’ advice to our next president boils down to three simple steps.

  • Early on, the President makes the case to China that it must get onboard the sanctions train. How? By appealing to Xi Jinping’s strategic good sense and apparent dislike of Kim Jong Un. By pushing ahead with theater missile defense, trilateral cooperation with South Korea and Japan, and other additions to the regional security architecture that China dislikes. By dangling the warning that if sanctions don’t work, the train’s next stop is “pre-emption.” And, last but certainly not least, by unleashing the US Treasury Department to slam Chinese firms and banks with secondary sanctions for doing business with Pyongyang.
  • Treasury action shuts targeted Chinese entities out of the global financial system. To stave off systemic financial pain, Beijing and provincial governments take bold action against dozens of firms like Hongxiang Industrial. Chinese companies pull out of North Korean joint ventures and investments, and they cancel orders and contracts. Chinese banks shut down DPRK-related accounts. The Chinese government provides no aid. Before long, North Korea is facing crippling shortages in fuel and food, not to mention capital investment and banking access.
  • With Kim Jong Un’s choices finally sharpened, he cries uncle and realizes he must give up his “treasured sword” of nuclear deterrence. He takes concrete dismantlement steps, declares a testing moratorium, verbally commits to complete denuclearization, and asks for resumption of the Six Party Talks on the basis of the September 19, 2005 agreement. Thanks to China’s tough love, young Kim learns his lesson: the Americans won’t reward bad behavior, they don’t talk for talk’s sake, and they won’t buy the same horse twice. Kim recognizes the fundamental contradiction in his byungjin strategy of simultaneous progress in developing nuclear weapons and the economy, and decides to abandon the former in hopes of maybe, eventually, achieving the latter.

It’s an alluring idea. There’s just one snag: even under dramatically increased financial pressure from the US government, Beijing will not sign up for comprehensive sanctions that would sever their trade and investment relationship with North Korea and, potentially, shut down their neighbor’s economy (as China’s UN Ambassador recently reminded anyone willing to listen). And Beijing’s main reason for resisting the boa constrictor plan exposes its deeper flaw—namely, the premise that the Kim regime will buckle once the pressure is strong enough.

To understand this point, it is worth stepping back to consider how Chinese and US observers look at North Korea in fundamentally divergent ways. Americans look at the North and see the Other, something irrational and evil—a crazy hereditary ruler, gulags and secret police, dirt poor and self-isolating, a whole country without electricity at night. Meanwhile, the Chinese see themselves a few decades ago, and focus on the ways in which the North is catching up, particularly under Kim Jong Un. To most Americans (including President Obama), the collapse of the DPRK is inevitable, a question of “when,” not “if.” To most Chinese experts, there is no reason why the North Korean system, just like their own, cannot last at least another 70 years.

The Chinese recognize that one of the key ingredients of North Korea’s resilience is the country’s extraordinary capacity to absorb pain. Few nation-states can “eat bitterness,” as Chinese say, like the North, as its 1990s famine tragically proved. The Chinese also believe that North Korea can undergo socioeconomic transformation, including the switch to a less hostile foreign policy, without regime change. In addition, Beijing accepts the North Koreans’ claim that insecurity in the face of US hostility is the main driver behind their nuclear program. And if Kim thinks his country needs a nuclear deterrent for the time being to fend off the overwhelming might of South Korea and the United States, he will let his people starve so the state can survive. Along the way, he will lash out violently at South Korea and perhaps even China, reminding both governments how their citizens want, more than anything else, not to have to think much about North Korea. Beijing therefore fundamentally rejects the premise that “super sanctions” can squeeze North Korea into submission.

Because the Chinese do not believe that Step 3 of the US sanctions strategy can succeed, they will push back hard at Step 1, using the economic and diplomatic leverage available to them in the US-China relationship. Does the next US president want to start a finance war with China during her first year in office over Beijing’s failure to apply sufficient economic pressure on North Korea? The boa constrictors answer a triumphant, “Yes!” But considering the severe stress it would place on Sino-US relations (jeopardizing progress on everything from climate change to bilateral investment to cybersecurity), and given the uncertainty of Kim complying even if Beijing did what we want it to do, one has to question the strategic soundness of the approach, tempting as it might sound.

The Doves

That leaves the third option: swallowing our pride, steeling our resolve and marching back into the negotiation room, as Joel Wit and Jane Harman and James Person have advocated.

Arguments in favor of bilateral talks, economic engagement and cultural exchange are unquestionably the underdogs in this debate. “Munich! Yalta!” the hawks and boas sneer, raising speculative objections that get repeated so often they have become like policy mantras: “There is nothing to discuss since Kim has already made a strategic decision to never give up his nukes. North Korea will make absurd demands, like suspending joint military exercises and discussing a peace treaty, that would undermine the security of the entire region. What’s the point of negotiations since they will cheat on their agreements anyway?” Most damning of all: “Talking to Pyongyang is de facto ‘recognition’ of their nuclear status, which is all they really want, and the one thing we can never, ever grant.”

There is no question that any direct negotiation with Pyongyang will be exhausting and at times maddening. If history is any guide, there will be setbacks, and there will be hedging (on both sides). But history also shows that progress is possible. For the next US administration, negotiating a freeze and return of inspectors is a realistic short-term goal, and the North Korean Foreign Ministry has made multiple unsuccessful attempts to get such talks going with the Obama administration. Yes, it’s true that major North Korean concessions on the nuclear program will demand security compromises by the United States and South Korea. That’s how diplomacy works, especially among parties with profound mutual hostility and distrust. But it is premature to conclude that Kim Jong Un is incapable of flexibility and pragmatism, since we have not tested him through diplomacy at a high level. As to the bogeyman that sitting down with the North Koreans is tantamount to recognition, that is, in the inimitable phrase of then-Senator John Kerry, “an extraordinary canard.” Similarly, the notion that Pyongyang is punished by our refusal to talk to them is, in the words of then-Senator Barack Obama, “ridiculous.”

Fighting for engagement and negotiation with North Korea in the US foreign policy debate is an uphill battle. But proponents of engagement have one trump card: when Washington engages, the China factor becomes an asset in dealing with North Korea, rather than a liability or roadblock. Beijing, after all, is steadfast in its strategy of engaging Pyongyang, and it is perpetually looking for US openness to negotiation. China’s security policy toward North Korea is unwavering: the goal is denuclearization, the preconditions are peace and stability, and the method is dialogue. If the next US president adopts an engagement strategy, Xi Jinping’s government would likely step up its own work to achieve short-term breakthroughs and long-term solutions. Paradoxically, Washington’s best chance of getting China to apply constructive pressure on its errant neighbor is through a major US initiative to negotiate with Kim Jong Un.

Beijing does not think any amount of sanctions and pressure, including the use of military force, will change Pyongyang’s behavior in the way Washington wants. The firm policy of the Chinese government, supported by most foreign policy experts (though not necessarily the ones most quoted by US and South Korean media), is that only dialogue and negotiation can moderate North Korea’s behavior, and that the best hope for long-term progress lies in the untapped potential of North Korea’s economic transformation and regional integration. Many South Koreans, including the leading candidates to become the next ROK president, would seem to agree.

A Hard Choice

The next US President and her core advisers will have to make their own determination whether the hawks, boas or doves have it right. No doubt there will be some combining of the three approaches, as advised by expert groups assembled by the Council on Foreign Relations and Hoover Institute and US-Korea Institute at SAIS. But a hard choice has to be made about which direction to stress in future US policy. Whatever comes after strategic patience, the “China factor” may make the difference between failure and success.

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