The Telegraph, April 3, 2017
US President Donald Trump’s ultimatum to Chinese President Xi Jinping over North Korea, raised the possibility of US taking unilateral military action, just as the two approach an upcoming summit in Mar-a-Largo, Florida. The summit is meant to set the tone of the superpowers’ relationship, so Trump’s warning was obviously an opening gambit in what look to be a complex set of negotiations.
As political commentators react to the incautious nature of the threats, two things are rapidly becoming apparent: first, the strategic calculus inside Washington has dramatically shifted as North Korea gets closer to developing a nuclear-strike capability on the continental United States. And second, President Trump has decided to approach North Korea as a “China problem”, proceeding from the assumption that a China-problem demands a China-solution.
For all the comments made about keeping military options “on the table”, the fact is that American Presidents have few choices on the Peninsula. Certainly, Washington has a strong military presence in the region, capable allies nearby, and a nuclear deterrence tempered and honed over the past 70 years. But North Korea has its own strong cards, which even the game immensely.
First, it has one of the region’s largest militaries, which it hangs over South Korea like Damocles’ Sword. Second, it has up to 13,000 artillery pieces, buried deep within bunker emplacements along the border, prepared to fire at Seoul, one of the world’s most densely populated cities. Third, it has developed a ballistic missile system and nuclear weapons programme, which it continues to develop in order to gain parity with the US and its allies. Fourth, it has the threat of its own demise which it implicitly uses to gain Beijing’s unconditional support, knowing full-well that China fears a collapse and chaos on its border more than it fears nuclear weapons. Weapons which are after all, pointed away from China.
Given such a grim range of policy choices, various American administrations have approached the North Korea issue tentatively as (a) a US-DPRK bilateral issue to be resolved through negotiations; (b) an alliance issue to be resolved through coordination with key regional allies, South Korea and Japan; and finally, (c) a regional issue to be resolved through sustained regional diplomacy. The first approach spawned the 1994 Agreed Framework, the second approach created the US-Japan-ROK Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG), and the third approach led to the ill-fated Six-Party Talks. None – as has become clear – has managed to stop North Korea from developing a nuclear strike capability.
In the first instance, the Agreed Framework failed when the Clinton White House failed to get domestic support from a Republican Congress, which suspected the North of cheating. The US-Japan-ROK trilateral continues to this day, but hobbled by Japan-ROK tensions, only acts in reactive way. As for re-starting the Six-Party Talks, as it stands, the North now refuses to to sit down again without the precondition of American acceptance of its nuclear status, something Washington is unlikely to give under any administration. Acceptance, would after all, compel other regional states to develop their own nuclear responses. North Korea is, a riddle wrapped in an enigma, to coin a Churchillian adage.
In a sense, approaching North Korea as a China-problem really is the “Last Chance Saloon” of policy options before outright military conflict.
By treating North Korea as a China issue, Donald Trump puts responsibility directly in Beijing’s lap. While Chinese leaders regularly refute the amount of influence they have over Pyongyang, and with some justification, they do hold the ultimate bargaining tool over the North.
Former British Ambassador to South Korea, Warwick Morris, states “it is right to press the Chinese to do more to rein and pressurize the Kim Jong-un regime. China, the North’s only ally, holds the most effective cards: trade economic support, food, and fuel…but it is not at all clear what President Trump means when he says the US can ‘solve North Korea’ if China doesn’t.”
Trump’s strategy effectively threatens China with trade war and outright war with North Korea. Needless to say, even threatening these things presents the US with massive risks, to say the least. For example, in order to successfully persuade Beijing that the US really intends unilateral military action on the Peninsula, Trump risks prompting Pyongyang into pre-emptive action. And if North Korean forces were to engage with South Korean and American troops, arrayed on the border from each other, it is unclear how China would react.
Dr. Alexander Deuben, an Assistant Professor at Jilin University in China, argues, “If China chose to intervene, the situation could incalculably spill out of control and engulf the whole region.” On the other hand, if he successfully persuades China that the US will impose high economic costs on China no matter what the North does, he effectively loses leverage over Beijing.
Much of this depends on President Trump’s negotiation skills around a complex topic, around which he has no in-depth knowledge and few in-house experts. All he has is his acumen as a business negotiator, but even this deal is bigger than most of those, which he has carried out before. One can only hope that he emerges from the Florida summit with some sort of grand bargain with China over the North. The future of the region depends on it.