If We Want to Stop Kim, We Have to Trust Each Other
South Korea, the U.S. and Beijing need to put their own fears aside and deliver Pyongyang a real ultimatum.
U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are meeting today for the first time in Washington, and not a moment too soon. Rising mistrust and frustration in recent weeks among the United States, China, and South Korea have begun to fray the prospects for a coordinated approach among the three countries to denuclearize North Korea. The Trump administration is disappointed in China’s reluctance to squeeze Pyongyang and wary of the new liberal Moon administration in South Korea. Beijing, on the other hand, resents the responsibility placed on its shoulders to pressure North Korea and fundamentally opposes any actions that might precipitate Pyongyang’s downfall. And Seoul is bitter that the fate of the Korean Peninsula is largely in the hands of outside powers and fearful that its citizens will be the greatest victims of any escalation in the region.
With these underlying tensions among the three key players, rapid, lockstep coordination to denuclearize North Korea remains elusive. And their division only buys Pyongyang time to further advance its nuclear arsenal. The only way to alter North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s plan will be to present his regime with an ultimate choice —nuclear weapons or regime survival — through economic pressure and diplomatic assurances. But that will be impossible unless Washington, Seoul, and Beijing overcome their common distrust by demonstrating they understand one another’s frustrations, and reassuring one another that uniting to pressure Pyongyang will not harm any party’s fundamental interests.
This past week, both the Trump and Moon administrations called on China to do more to use its economic leverage to rein in North Korea. Trump tweeted that while he “greatly appreciated” China’s efforts on North Korea, “it has not worked out.” Two days later, Moon said in an interview with Reuters that he agreed with Trump that China could do more. Although Beijing has increased pressure on its troublesome ally in recent months by halting imports of North Korean coal and voting to expand U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang, it has yet to take further punitive measures. Beijing, instead, has bristled at the notion that it should “do more,” and expressed through a spokesperson that “the key” to the nuclear crisis lies outside China.
Chinese observers, while no fans of Pyongyang, are resentful of what they see as U.S. attempts to pass the buck on North Korea. They ask why China should risk making itself a target of Pyongyang’s ire when, as they see it, the United States is largely responsible for North Korea’s insecurity and pursuit of nuclear weapons. More importantly, despite the growing costs of North Korea’s belligerent behavior for China’s strategic interests, Beijing’s deep fear of destabilizing the Kim regime continues to hold it back from fully using its potential to pressure its troublesome ally. The Chinese historical narrative that warns against the danger of having powerful outsiders at its borders has ingrained in the minds of its leaders that they cannot allow a unified, pro-U.S. Korea to rise as its neighbor.
But unless China is willing to use its economic clout to hold Pyongyang’s arm to the fire, any efforts to dissuade North Korea from its nuclear course are doomed to failure, since the latter depends overwhelmingly on the former for its trade, critical commodities, and networks to the outside world. And it’s quite clear that Kim will be unwilling to give up his nuclear weapons unless his ultimate goal — regime survival — is at stake.
To convince Beijing that its long-standing policy of shielding Pyongyang is misguided, American and South Korean leaders need to reassure their Chinese counterparts that China’s fears of a unified Korea are unfounded. They can do this by promising China that they do not seek regime change in Pyongyang, and that they are willing to live and work with the Kim regime as long as it gives up its nuclear program. They must also guarantee that in the worst-case scenario where the Kim regime collapses due to economic pressure, a unified Korea under Seoul would not harm China’s ultimate security interests. This means the Korean Peninsula would not host U.S. troops or equipment, and would serve as a neutral state that maintains good relations with both Washington and Beijing. Many in South Korea share this vision of a future unified Korean state.
For any such framework to be credible, it must be enshrined in a written document, such as a communiqué, to underscore each party’s serious commitment to the framework. Moreover, such a document would communicate clearly to Pyongyang that if it gives up its nuclear weapons, each party is truly willing to live with it, but if it chooses to stay the course, Beijing no longer has an incentive to prop up its existence.
There have been recent discussions in Washington about using secondary sanctions against Chinese companies that work with North Korean entities. But it’s inadvisable to turn to such measures just yet. Secondary sanctions will only reinforce the Chinese perception that the United States is unfairly burdening them with a problem of America’s own creation and will do nothing to address China’s larger anxieties about the future of the Korean Peninsula.
In addition, the U.S.-South Korea relationship is beginning to show signs of strain, with Washington wary of newly elected Moon’s proclivity toward engagement with Pyongyang, and South Koreans resentful and worried that their fate may be determined by the whims of the Trump administration.
Moon will need to firmly reassure Trump and the rest of Washington that he will not seek engagement at the expense of denuclearization. Although Moon has consistently qualified that he will engage Pyongyang only if “appropriate conditions” have been met, he has been vague about what those are. This has led to anxiety among American leaders and observers that Seoul will complicate, not aid, a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear crisis. When meeting with Trump, Moon will need to clarify his intentions, assure U.S. officials that he prioritizes the denuclearization of North Korea, and win American support for a South Korean vision for the Korean Peninsula.
Finally, Trump, in turn, will need to clearly communicate to the South Koreans that he will not act rashly at their expense. Although Trump officials have repeatedly emphasized that they do not seek a military option to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis, many South Koreans shudder when they hear Trump make remarks such as “all options are on the table” and “major, major conflict with North Korea is possible.” If Trump personally reassures Moon that he cares about Korean lives during their summit, that he seeks to coordinate closely with Seoul, and that he ultimately supports South Korea’s vision for unification, he will buy much goodwill among South Koreans, give Moon the room to work with the United States, and boost support in South Korea for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile-defense system, among other bilateral improvements.
The prospect of a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis is diminishing every day, with Pyongyang’s rapidly expanding nuclear program and growing disunity among Washington, Beijing, and Seoul. These three key players must act quickly to address one another’s anxieties and to coordinate their actions on the basis of a shared understanding on the future of the Korean Peninsula. Otherwise, they will soon be faced with Pyongyang’s own ultimatum — live with a nuclear North Korea or go to war.
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