Crisis in U.S. Nuclear Talks With Pyongyang Not China’s Doing, Experts Say

Beijing is angry over the U.S. trade war, but Trump’s own mishandling of North Korea talks are the main problem.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left North Korea after two days of “productive” talks, while Pyongyang decried U.S. “gangster-like” tactics, on July 7, 2018. (Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left North Korea after two days of “productive” talks, while Pyongyang decried U.S. “gangster-like” tactics, on July 7, 2018. (Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump has suggested that China might be to blame for an apparent crisis in nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea — arguing that Beijing could be undermining the agreement because of anger over the escalating trade war with the United States.

But experts believe it’s Trump’s own mishandling of the talks that has caused the disarray.

Trump made the suggestion in a tweet Monday. “We agreed to the denuclearization of North Korea,” he wrote. “China, on the other hand, may be exerting negative pressure on a deal because of our posture on Chinese Trade-Hope Not!”

Over the weekend, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said much the same, arguing that China was using its leverage over North Korea to push back on Trump’s trade policies.

The idea that China, facing U.S. tariffs on tens of billions of dollars worth of exports, would fight back in an unrelated area like North Korea policy is not implausible.

Trump himself linked U.S. treatment of China’s commercial practices with Beijing’s help in dealing with North Korea shortly after taking office. And Chinese officials in recent weeks have explicitly made the connection, said Patrick Cronin, the senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. China has essentially been telling U.S. audiences that “if relations are deteriorating in other areas, then it will be difficult for Beijing to comply with U.S. demands on North Korea policy,” he said.

But North Korea’s angry pushback regarding what was actually agreed to at last month’s summit in Singapore — Pyongyang slammed “gangster-like” U.S. demands after a dismal meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over the weekend — hardly needed a nudge from China.

“Trump’s tweet betrays the fundamental problem: He thinks it was a contract and a unilateral agreement to denuclearize,” said Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“But when North Korea says it is not going to unilaterally disarm, that is not the influence of China — that is them knowing what they signed [in Singapore],” he said. “The premise that China put Kim Jong Un up to it, after North Korea has been playing this game for a quarter century” is not convincing, he added.

If China is less than helpful in advancing nuclear diplomacy with North Korea, it’s largely because Beijing has already gotten what it wanted out of the Singapore summit. Trump offered to end U.S. military exercises in South Korea and declared a premature end to North Korea’s nuclear threat.

“There are two reasons China is not being helpful,” said Michael Green, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former George W. Bush administration official.

Securing an end to U.S. military exercises in exchange for vague promises of North Korean denuclearization has always been China’s goal, he said, “and the president took all the pressure off China himself by declaring success.” Trade tensions with the United States, he said, are at most a minor factor.

But what those trade tensions do is make it that much harder to enlist Chinese support for any return to a campaign of maximum pressure on North Korea, including U.N. sanctions on North Korean trade and most financial transactions.

Greater Chinese compliance with international sanctions — whether limiting Pyongyang’s sale of coal, imports of fuel, or access to international banks — from late 2017 was seen as a crucial step in ramping up pressure on North Korea. While official Chinese customs data indicates a sharp decline this year in trade with North Korea, there are indications of greater illicit trade that is undermining the sanctions regime.

“What incentive does China have to put the screws back on North Korea on energy imports and the like? Zero. You started a trade war,” Narang said.

“Enforcement of sanctions has reportedly dropped off, and there is little doubt that the Chinese want to move forward with targeted trade and investment with North Korea,” Cronin said.

And given North Korea’s overwhelming reliance on trade with China, that weakening enforcement makes it less necessary to secure broader relief from U.S. sanctions as part of the nuclear deal, Narang said.

“They don’t need sanctions relief from the United States if China is basically trading with them at prior levels,” he said.

More broadly, Trump’s contention that China is taking out its frustration over U.S. trade policies by interfering with the North Korea deal underscores why the United States has for decades deliberately tried to avoid linking issues like trade and security, especially with China.

Since U.S. President Richard Nixon normalized relations with China, Washington and Beijing have largely sought to deal with contentious issues — including trade, Taiwan, and human rights — in isolation from one another. That’s because linking everything together makes it possible for tensions in one area to spill over and poison relations in other, perhaps more important, areas.

“Trump is the first president since Bill Clinton to think he can cross-link issues and get results, and there’s a reason that others haven’t done it,” Green said.

“If you start linking issues, it’s like the Titanic — you can have one watertight compartment flood, but if they all flood, then U.S.-China relations will capsize.”

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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