Trump's key to North Korea is its  relationship with China
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U.S. Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence allies worried he'll be called to answer questions from Mueller: report Trump thought it was ‘low class’ for Pence to bring pets to VP residence: report Pence told RNC he could replace Trump on ticket after 'Access Hollywood' tape came out: report MORE visited the troops in South Korea for Easter Sunday, and he brought with him a stern warning for North Korea, saying the “era of strategic patience is over” — a clear signal that the Trump administration’s approach toward the North Korean regime will be different than those of the past.   

There has been some confusion over what “strategic patience” means — it sounds like a weak form of a traditional isolationist foreign policy — but in this case, the U.S. has not been able to marshal the other countries in the region, in particular China, to exert the necessary pressure, either diplomatically or economically on North Korea to abandon their nuclear and ballistic weapons programs.  

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The North Koreans have been active with their nuclear program since the Clinton administration, where a diplomatic agreement tried to prevent its initial development; that agreement failed when the North conducted their first nuclear test under the Bush administration in 2006.  They would go on to conduct another four more missile tests under the Obama administration.

 

What we have heard from both the Bush and Obama administrations is China holds the key to North Korea, but can we really expect North Korea to completely abandon their nuclear as well as inter-continental ballistic missile programs, even in the face of concessions from the west?    

I am afraid the answer is no. The reason behind this is simple — China will never deliver the kind of ultimatum or force the North Koreans to do anything without extracting significant concessions from the United States, ones that the U.S. would never agree to.   

The concessions the Chinese would seek for their help likely expand beyond the borders of North Korea. China would want a decreased U.S. naval presence within that part of the world. The U.S. might agree to withdraw the sizable number of ground troops in South Korea, but that is likely the only military concession the U.S. would agree to.  Any others would affect treaties with other allies, and I don’t see us breaking them.  

Why are China’s demands likely to be so rigid? For starters, China is not interested in a unified Korean peninsula, one where a close ally of the United States would assuredly try to move military assets and intelligence collection resources closer to the Chinese border.  The Chinese are known to be supporting the North with substance utilities such as gas and electricity, and the Chinese government must know those inside China who are smuggling sanctioned material to the North.

Last month, the United Nations published a report showing North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has an elaborate underground web of foreign enablers who smuggle nuclear materials, cash and ammunition on his behalf and has let him advance his nuclear program and gain hard currency for the country that is supposed to be cut off by biting U.N. and U.S. sanctions.  The report lays out details of a network of financial institutions with fake names and addresses that transfer arms, cash, and gold on behalf of the Kim regime.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, has been a rising star in the beginning of this administration; she should use this report to get the Security Council to ensure better implementation of the sanctions placed on the regime.

If this administration will be more successful than previous ones to get the North Koreans to forgo its nuclear ambitions remains to be seen but, if it happens, it will surely be a result of what China does and, more importantly, what they want.  China in effect wants to keep North Korea as a belligerent to the United States and South Korea, forcing both to spend cycles responding to their actions.  

North Korea knows this on some level as well, so they have some leverage over the Chinese. It’s this relationship that the U.S. needs to disrupt if we are to have any progress in the elimination of nuclear weapons in the North.  

The U.S. could place sanctions on China for their support of their client state, but this could backfire as well.  At some point, the Chinese have to realize the U.S. administration will explore courses of action against North Korea that could destabilize the country, with the possibility of thousands of refugees pouring over the Korean border to China.  The U.S. has to convince China they can be part of the solution, but if not, the U.S. will go it alone.  That thought should get the Chinese to move.

It does look like the Trump administration has turned up the volume on the problem with North Korea. There are more countries that have said publicly the situation can’t continue. The Chinese have been putting more stern warnings out against the North Koreans, but are still not going to side completely with the U.S. or South Korea.

Could China get the U.S. to withdraw its significant presence on the Korean peninsula as part of a deal to get the North to forgo its nuclear program?  I believe this is one concession the U.S. will have to consider if it wants to achieve it’s goal of having the North shut down the programs that threaten our allies. 

Army Major Mike Lyons (Ret.) is a Senior Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and is a military analyst for CBS News. Follow him on Twitter @MAJMikeLyons.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.