The United States appears to be preparing for a showdown with China and the United Nations over North Korea. Over the weekend, in an interview with the Financial Times, U.S. President Donald Trump said, "China will either decide to help us with North Korea or they won't," adding, "If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will." This was an unambiguous signal to China ahead of the start of Thursday's summit between Trump and President Xi Jinping.
Three weeks after the Trump-Xi meeting in Florida, the U.N. Security Council will hold a special session led by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on North Korea and nuclear nonproliferation. Earlier this week, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, announcing Tillerson's upcoming U.N. visit and referencing the U.S.-China summit, said: "The United States has seen China for 25-plus years say that they are concerned about North Korea, but we haven't seen them act like they're concerned about North Korea. This administration wants to see them act."
And North Korea ensured its relevance to the two-day Trump-Xi summit by carrying out a test on Tuesday of what the U.S. military assessed to be a liquid-fueled SCUD-ER missile — an older model capable of reaching western Japan — fired from a stationary launch platform. (The Pentagon initially said the North had tested a more advanced Pukguksong-2 road-mobile solid-fuel medium-range ballistic missile.) The test appeared to be unsuccessful: Reports suggest it flew a mere 60 kilometers (40 miles), falling far short of its estimated 1,000-kilometer range. But the timing of the launch reinforces the U.S. case that North Korea is simply flouting international demands to cease its "provocations."
Pyongyang had warned earlier in the week, following new U.S. sanctions on North Korean entities abroad, that it would continue its missile and nuclear tests and bring the program to completion. And the North has made it clear that each additional round of sanctions only reinforces its desire to pursue the nuclear deterrent.
Sanctions, at least in their current configuration, clearly have not ended the North's pursuit of nuclear weapons, and given its accelerated pace of testing over the past several years, it is unclear whether sanctions are even causing a delay in their development. According to the latest U.N. report on North Korean sanctions, Pyongyang's exports of key commodities actually increased after the last round of tighter sanctions was imposed. Evidence of an increase in North Korean air force training exercises appeared to counter subsequent claims by China and Russia that they had substantially curtailed delivery of aviation fuel to the North, which even hosted an international airshow.
To China, North Korea is both an irritant and a benefit. Beijing has little interest in seeing on its doorstep a unified Korea allied with the United States. Nor does it want a destabilization of North Korea to lead to a cross-border humanitarian and security crisis. Keeping North Korea alive, and keeping the United States distracted with Pyongyang, is still an overall benefit. But differences of opinion within China over North Korea policy are growing. Though overall support for North Korea remains unchanged, there are growing discussions, similar to those being held in South Korea and the United States, about the potential to pursue regime change in Pyongyang as a way to achieve policy change.
There would be clear immediate risks in a Chinese operation to replace the North Korean leadership with a more pliant administration. But the ramifications for Beijing's broader global strategy from such a move would be immense. For several decades, China has positioned itself as a country that does not interfere directly with the leadership or the internal politics of other countries. The application of that policy could be hotly debated, but China is not seen as an entity that would force change in governments it doesn't like — at least not overtly or forcefully. Breaking that image would alter Beijing's business and strategic relations around the globe. For China, this is about more than the status of North Korea.
For the new U.S. administration, the question is what changes will it make to Washington's North Korea policy. The White House and conservative think tanks have roundly criticized the concept of "strategic patience" espoused by President Barack Obama's administration, but so far, the most realistic alternative offered consists of a three-fold strategy: intensifying sanctions (including secondary sanctions) and strengthening their enforcement; adding military forces and deploying more missile defense systems to the region; and increasing multifaceted pressure on China to act to curtail Pyongyang's activities. Though the United States maintains that its military options remain on the table, the collateral cost of action makes the use of force by far the least preferred option — at least for now.
Washington is clearly putting the onus on Beijing to act and may try to make things very uncomfortable for China if it does not. An obvious first step would be increased secondary sanctions targeting Chinese financial institutions, companies and individuals linked with North Korea's trading networks. Though many of these may be small entities, the 2007 actions against the Macao-based Banco Delta Asia sent ripples through the Chinese banking community, with many financial institutions voluntarily shutting down any accounts linked to North Korea to avoid U.S. action.
But the North has been adept at adapting to sanctions, dodging their effects by changing the placement of its overseas agents, working through cash and bulk gold purchases and payments, and hiring foreigners to set up business fronts. Secondary sanctions could damage both Chinese and North Korean business, but it would take targeting a major Chinese company or state entity or perhaps even the Chinese military to make a significant dent in China's overall cost-benefit assessment of its North Korea policy.
In addition to economic levers, the United States will likely pursue military pressure, hoping that China sees the overall change in the regional power balance as too detrimental to its own interests to continue sheltering North Korea. Besides stepping up deployment of missile defense systems in South Korea (the controversial Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system being the current case in point), Washington is discussing expanding missile defense integration with Japan and selling systems to Taiwan. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Japanese press has published leaked information about a potential major upgrade in the next U.S. offer of arms to Taiwan that would include not only missile defense systems but also F-35 aircraft.
Both the Taiwan arms deal and the full content of Tillerson's presentation to the United Nations appear predicated on the outcome of the Trump-Xi summit. Washington expects the Chinese to make a viable offer to more actively change North Korean behavior, to pull their support from the leadership in Pyongyang and to significantly reduce economic ties with the North. Xi is likely to offer continued coordination and increased enforcement of sanctions, but he is also likely to counter that U.S. pressure tactics and military threats only exacerbate the North Korean situation. In other words, there appears to be room for some rhetorical compromise but not yet a substantial shift in Chinese behavior.
In the end, North Korea is just one piece in a very complicated set of relations and interests between China and the United States. Beijing and Washington are first and foremost focused on domestic economic, social and political concerns, but for each, the other country plays a critical role, both in concrete terms and in political rhetoric. Focusing on North Korea quickly reveals the web of interconnections as the two sides deal with a changing balance in their relative power.
This report was amended to reflect the U.S. military’s updated assessment of the type of missile test-launched by North Korea.