The East Asian Landscape After the Trump-Kim Summit

North Korean Denuclearization and US-China Relations


The historic summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un resulted in a joint statement that the countries would work toward a stable, denuclearized Korean Peninsula. But the success of these promises will depend on how the United States advances diplomatic strategy from now on—and, more importantly, how it positions its choices in the context of America’s strategic competition with China.

The Beginning of Bilateral Talks

It has been pointed out that the United States and China have generally shared three common interests regarding the Korean Peninsula: no nuclear weapons, no war, and no collapse of North Korea. Pyongyang’s persistent pursuit of nuclear weapons over the past decades has compelled the United States to apply both military and economic pressure during crises when North Korea defied international agreements or UN Security Council resolutions. At times, the United States appeared to risk the second and the third interests for the sake of realizing the first. For China, compelling North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambition was important, but the risks of war and the collapse of the state were too grave to take. This asymmetry of priorities between the United States and China have shaped the dynamics of bilateral interactions over North Korea during the past quarter of a century.

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un issued a joint statement at their summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018, in which the former “committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK” while the latter “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Both stated that they are convinced that “the establishment of new US-DPRK relations will contribute to the peace and prosperity of the Korean Peninsula and of the world.”

Perhaps more significantly, President Trump’s remarks at the press conference following the meeting drew wide public attention. First, he said that while the withdrawal of US troops in South Korea is not part of the current negotiations, he did hope to withdraw them at some point in the future—a remark that raised questions about the future of US engagement in the region. Second, Trump announced his intention to stop joint US–South Korean wargames or joint military exercises as long as the negotiations were making progress. Trump claimed to have secured “a halt of all missiles and of all nuclear tests,” as well as the closure of North Korea’s single primary nuclear test site and the missile engine test site—promises that were not written down on paper. The announcement came as a surprise, as it represented the virtual acceptance of the so-called double freeze proposal that China had been advocating—suspending joint military exercises south of the border in exchange for a halt to the North’s weapons tests—one that the United States had rejected in the past.

Bilateral negotiations between the United States and North Korea are planned to continue, and it was explained that various aspects of the denuclearization process, including relevant verification systems, would be worked out by officials from the two governments during negotiations to follow. It is uncertain whether these talks will actually produce meaningful agreements. Therefore, any assessment of what has surfaced may be premature at best. However, in the context of US-China relations, there are several issues that merit attention when assessing further developments down the road.

Denuclearization in the Context of US-China Competition

First, the issue of North Korea’s denuclearization—which in the past was about nuclear nonproliferation—is now nested in the context of a long-term geopolitical and strategic competition between the United States and China. The administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama were driven by the strategic premise that an engagement-oriented approach would shape China to become a responsible player in the international system. This involved a general expectation that China, as a nuclear weapon state in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime, would not want to see North Korea acquire nuclear weapons. A major US task was to urge action by China, which was hesitant to apply too much pressure on North Korea due to concerns that full enforcement of sanctions could cause instability there.

These administrations were also placed under circumstances that compelled them to see China as a partner in managing the Northeast Asian region. The Clinton administration, despite undergoing the Taiwan Strait crises in 1995–96, ended up supporting China’s accession to the World Trade Organization because it saw a huge potential in China’s vast market. The Bush administration initially saw China as a “strategic competitor,” but after the 9/11 terrorist attacks saw China as a partner in the fight against terrorism, relying on Beijing to manage the North Korean issue while America was focused on its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama administration needed to closely coordinate with China on macroeconomic issues at the outset, and the president generally saw China as an indispensable partner in tackling global issues like climate change, as well as nuclear security and nonproliferation.

However, as China grew more assertive during the second term of the Obama administration, Washington’s view of the rising power gradually deteriorated. Chinese actions relating to the South China Sea and cyber conflict were seen as highly problematic, and issues such as theft of intellectual property and advanced technology, predatory economic statecraft, and political warfare against third countries became highly salient. As a result, the Donald Trump administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy made public its view that the United States had entered a long-term strategic competition with China.

The implication of this fundamental shift in the US external outlook for the North Korean issue is that Washington will have to consider whether a negotiated outcome would be favorable for the United States in the geopolitical competition unfolding between itself and China. In other words, the North Korean nuclear issue is no longer only about denuclearization or nonproliferation, but also involves geopolitical competition—the relative influence of the United States and China in Northeast Asia. Any future discussion relating to the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea, even if it remains separated from denuclearization negotiations, should be assessed in that light. US allies like Japan and South Korea will also have to assess how negotiated agreements relating to North Korean denuclearization will impact US influence in the region and weigh in accordingly.

A strategy to enhance America’s presence and influence on the Korean Peninsula after North Korean denuclearization is badly needed. President Trump’s remark about his wishes to withdraw American troops was problematic because he made it without putting forward any future vision of US engagement in the region.

An Increasingly Adept Beijing and the Limits of the Strategic Patience Approach

Next, the United States will have to generate significant leverage over China if it wants to steer the negotiation process toward a favorable outcome. Chinese influence has grown since the first North Korean nuclear crisis in 1993–94. Probably the most outstanding change over the past quarter of a century is the fact that China has risen both militarily and economically, and has therefore become capable of wielding significant diplomatic influence in the region. A brief review of the past shows how China’s role has changed from a follower to a major player since the 1993–94 crisis.

During the first nuclear crisis, the United States dominated the process toward concluding the so-called Agreed Framework. In June 1994, when Pyongyang appeared to be on the brink of pulling out of the NPT in preparation to resume reprocessing of spent fuel to extract plutonium, the Clinton administration used the threat of economic sanctions to ratchet up the pressure. North Korea responded by reaffirming its position that UN sanctions would be regarded immediately as a declaration of war. China opposed sanctions, but reportedly warned North Korea that it would not veto a UN sanction resolution, and abstained from a vote by the IAEA Board to suspend technical assistance to the North Korean nuclear program. It seemed that China had to tag along with the United States as it compelled North Korea to change course.

However, China managed the North Korean issue more deftly when it underwent the second nuclear crisis. China convened the six party talks to not only manage US–North Korean interactions but also to support North Korea’s positions. For example, China supported the North’s claim that it enjoyed the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy, and succeeded in inscribing North Korea’s right to that energy in the joint statement of the six party talks that was adopted on September 19, 2005. China, together with Russia, also worked to act as a diplomatic shield against tough UN sanctions resolutions on North Korea, as they also did after North Korea began conducting nuclear tests beginning in 2006. China also defended North Korea when an international investigative group of military experts concluded that it had perpetrated the sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in 2010. In these and other instances, China essentially carried out “diffusion tactics” of a sort to stave off US pressure and preserve North Korea’s position.

The Obama administration dealt with China’s growing clout through its so-called strategic patience approach. The Obama administration mainly operated through the UN Security Council by pushing for tougher sanctions whenever North Korea conducted nuclear tests and missile tests that violated UN resolutions. The idea was to compel North Korea to commit to denuclearization and mend relations with South Korea before starting any direct negotiations, while also urging China to work on North Korea, by taking actions that China disliked in response to North Korean provocations. The United States conducted joint military exercises with South Korea in the Yellow Sea, sending in the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and several of its Aegis ships after it was discovered that North Korea had developed a uranium enrichment program and the North shelled the island of Yeonpyeong in November 2010.

The latest of this type of measure came when South Korea agreed to the U.S. deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in July 2016. China strongly condemned the move, and applied pressure on South Korea to express its displeasure and demonstrate its influence, but it was becoming increasingly apparent that China’s attitude toward North Korea was also gradually hardening as China had to pay the price for North Korea’s belligerent behavior.

However, the series of UN resolutions and American pressure on China to work on North Korea failed to deliver results. The strategic patience approach essentially excluded the military option, so the choices presented to North Korea were to continue nuclear and missile development and suffer sanctions, or to give up nuclear weapons and normalize relations with the rest of the world. North Korea chose the former option because it could continue its nuclear and missile development without facing significant risks of war. From China’s point of view, the second option was preferable, but either option was probably acceptable because neither threatened stability as long as China kept its borders open to North Korea. Beijing thus saw no compelling reason to risk instability by pressuring North Korea to the limit.

The Calculus of the Maximum Pressure Approach

President Trump revived the military option by playing up the possibility of armed attack through his sensational remarks. Discussions about the “bloody nose” strategy, as well as stepped-up joint military exercises with Japan and South Korea and show-of-force operations by US carrier strike groups and bombers, created a tense atmosphere. The Trump administration also applied economic pressure on China in the form of secondary sanctions on Chinese companies and entities that were engaging in business transactions with North Korea, all to Beijing’s increasing irritation.

These actions pursued by President Trump changed the choices presented to the North Koreans: to continue nuclear and missile development and face the risk of military action by the United States and even tougher economic sanctions, or to agree to denuclearization and normalize relations with the rest of the world. The fact that the United States launched missile strikes against Syria during the Trump-Xi summit was thought to have sent a signal not only to Kim but also to Xi that Trump was different from Obama when it came to the use of force.  America’s joint military exercises with Japan and South Korea gained special meaning amid rising tensions. These actions individually were not decisive in compelling China to pressure North Korea, but they may cumulatively have served as significant leverage to convince the Chinese leaders that US responses to a state approaching operational nuclear capability that could directly threaten US territory could destabilize North Korea and have serious consequences for China’s national security.

Is America Selling Off Its Leverage?

The announcement by President Trump at Singapore that joint US–South Korea military exercises would be called off should thus be considered as part of a limited set of leverages that the United States has over China and North Korea. The US threat of military action receded after Kim announced his intention to engage in talks and South Korean President Moon Jae-in reciprocated that gesture. Although the sanctions are going to remain in place, the format of US-DPRK summit talks that announced an agreement in principle at the outset of the negotiating process inevitably seems to have removed the pressure on North Korea.

The suspension of military exercises has been criticized for various reasons, ranging from its impact on force readiness to diminished confidence among Asian allies in America’s commitment. Critics have also pointed to the problem of unduly rewarding China by virtually accepting its “double freeze” proposal, which the Trump administration had considered a nonstarter until recently. The decision essentially removes a limited source of US leverage from the negotiation dynamic before agreements regarding major issues concerning the denuclearization roadmap and verification mechanisms are reached. Trump explained that military exercises can be resumed if negotiations do not go well, but we will have to see whether that is possible, given public hesitation to raise tension on the Korean Peninsula in both South Korea and the United States.

China, on the other hand, has gained a diplomatically favorable position. As demonstrated by Kim Jong-Un’s shuttle diplomacy to Beijing, Xi appears to be in a position to advise and influence Kim’s decisions. Tightened international sanctions have enhanced China’s leverage over North Korea. It remains to be seen how negotiations will unfold between Pyongyang and Washington, but North Korea will likely get China’s endorsement of its positions on many of the issues before facing American negotiators. Assuming that North Korean negotiators prudently avoid rejecting or pushing back on US demands in ways that would isolate them without Chinese support, China will effectively influence North Korean positions on issues where it sees opportunities to advance its own interests. We may see a US-China track that deals with some deadlocked issues in the US–North Korea track.

The United States will have to find alternative sources of influence over China. Some commentaries have pointed out that the Trump administration could potentially use trade actions to gain leverage over China, but it remains to be seen whether such a linkage tactic would actually work.

The Test Before the President

Ultimately, how America handles the two issues mentioned above—pursuing an outcome for the denuclearization process that enables the United States to engage in strategic competition with China from a position of strength, and generating leverage in the absence of military exercises when China is calling for the relaxation of sanctions—will depend on the US president, who will have to reconcile domestic political motivations with strategic judgments relating to the denuclearization of North Korea as well as the competition with China. This engagement is unfolding in a midterm election year for the United States, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stated that he intends to complete denuclearization by the end of President Trump’s first term in office (Pompeo subsequently stated that he will not put a timeline for negotiations, so it is unclear whether the initial target still holds). One cannot escape the impression that domestic political considerations may be prevailing in Trump’s mind.

Negotiating a denuclearization roadmap and a verification system that provides “complete denuclearization” will put President Trump to the test. If he opts for a politically expedient tactic, he could announce the completion of denuclearization in 2020 and try to appeal to his supporters that his America First approach had ostensibly delivered peace on the Korean Peninsula and security for the United States. This would open the way toward official lifting of sanctions and normalization of relations, and relations with China would seemingly stabilize as the North Korean denuclearization issue would be made “a done deal” between the two countries. At the same time, North Korea’s incentives to comply with inspection could diminish, ultimately igniting another crisis down the road.

Alternatively, if President Trump holds his ground and demands a concrete and effective denuclearization roadmap, accompanied by a rigorous inspection regime, then US-China relations could become fraught with tension, as Washington would have to press North Korea and China to accept terms that are acceptable to the United States and its allies.

The former scenario would deliver early results but remain unsatisfactory and shaky, while the latter scenario will require patience, as it will take much longer to produce a new arrangement. The choices the American president will make in the days to come will thus profoundly impact the future shape of an international political equilibrium in Northeast Asia. Any solution to the North Korean denuclearization problem will have to be defined within a long-term US engagement strategy for the region—one that seeks to prevent a future crisis as it gears the nation for its geopolitical competition with China.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. © AFP/Aflo.)

United States nuclear security China North Korea