Other than war, the only ways to address the major threats from North Korea are deterrence and negotiations. The U.S. should certainly continue and sensibly expand deterrence strategies. But negotiations with North Korea would provide the best path forward. Most people agree that the best route to effective negotiations is working cooperatively with China, but those efforts haven’t yet paid off.
One possible path to greater U.S.-China cooperation hasn’t gotten adequate attention. On Aug. 1, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said about North Korea, “We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel.” On Aug. 7, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi acknowledged this and called them the “4 No’s.” In a joint Wall Street Journal op-ed on Monday, Secretary Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis mentioned these assurances again but focused more on U.S. resolve against North Korea’s nuclear provocations.
These assurances are critical—as much for dealing with China as with North Korea. China has long criticized the U.S. for trying to promote regime change around the world. The Tillerson-Mattis assurances about not seeking regime change in Pyongyang are particularly important because they address specific Chinese concerns that have kept Beijing from increasing economic pressure on North Korea.
China has seen its overriding interest as preserving a “buffer state” on the border it shares with North Korea. Observers in and outside China have argued that Beijing is jeopardizing far broader and more important strategic interests in a prolonged North Korea crisis, but the Chinese government continues to focus on its perceived need for a “buffer state.” This area has historically been a path for invasion, with devastating results throughout Chinese history. The Chinese government genuinely dislikes a nuclear North Korea and recognizes that North Korea jeopardizes regional security and poses some direct risks to China itself, but Beijing prefers that to having North Korea taken over by forces allied with the U.S.
China is not confident it can calibrate economic sanctions strong enough to bring North Korea to the bargaining table but not so strong that they cause the Pyongyang regime to collapse. China has helped to impose economic sanctions on North Korea—most recently joining a unanimous U.N. Security Council measure this month imposing new sanctions—but as Pyongyang’s largest trading partner could apply much more economic pressure to push North Korea to negotiate seriously. Obtaining credible assurances that the U.S. and its allies would take no steps to promote or support regime change, in spite of the Kim regime’s dangerousness and brutality, is key for China. Only then might China take greater risks in more substantially ratcheting up its economic pressure on the regime.
U.S. assurances serve another important Chinese interest. They help protect China’s leaders from being seen as doing Washington’s bidding. Instead, China could be seen as having extracted important concessions from the United States concerning regime change. Within the negotiations themselves, more formal security guarantees for North Korea would have to be part of any deal, but in the short term China can point to U.S. assurances as progress resulting from Beijing’s toughness.
Further steps are needed, however, for the U.S. assurances given so far to produce more U.S.-Chinese cooperation. Given uncertainties in this administration about who speaks for the president and the fact that CIA Director Mike Pompeo has publicly supported regime change, the statements of the two Cabinet secretaries are not sufficient to delineate U.S. commitment. Chinese President Xi Jinping must be given personal assurances from President Trump. In turn, President Trump would expect President Xi to give assurances that he will significantly increase economic pressure on North Korea and implement earlier commitments that China has not fully carried out. If such a deal between the two presidents materializes—a big “if” at this stage—it might enable the U.S. and China to finally embrace a more effective cooperative strategy for resolving the North Korea nuclear crisis.
A further question is whether the U.S. can sustain a coordinated strategy with its ally South Korea. South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, is profoundly committed to reunification of North and South Korea. Washington must work closely with South Korea and take careful account of its interests, especially if cooperating with China based on the “4 No’s” becomes the core of U.S. strategy toward North Korea.
The approach outlined here is designed to do two things: (1) encourage Beijing to impose far stronger economic sanctions on North Korea by addressing Chinese concerns about regime change on its border and being seen as doing U.S. bidding; and (2), based on fuller cooperation with China, to encourage North Korea to begin fruitful negotiations by providing new incentives related to regime security in addition to more punishing economic pressure.
Negotiations with the North Koreans about their nuclear program have been attempted again and again and have always failed. The North’s weapons and missile advances leave us less and less to negotiate about, and a new round of negotiations will be fiendishly difficult. Deterrence will have to be part of the U.S. approach indefinitely. But negotiations that build on cooperation between the U.S. and China remain the best path forward in this dark and dangerous situation with North Korea.