Opinion | National Security

China’s attempted power play hands leverage to Trump on North Korea

China’s attempted power play hands leverage to Trump on North Korea

Tuesday night, President TrumpDonald John TrumpGillibrand urges opposition to Kavanaugh: Fight for abortion rights 'is now or never' Trump claims tariffs on foreign nations will rescue US steel industry: report Bannon announces pro-Trump movie, operation team ahead of midterms: report MORE revealed that Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoKavanaugh has 'productive' meeting with key swing votes 17 times Brennan has torched Trump Diplomats who have kids with special needs say Pompeo is ignoring their pleas: report MORE, incumbent CIA director and secretary of State nominee, met secretly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un earlier this month. Pompeo’s trip is certainly a surprise, yet it is a step forward for the administration to “lay the groundwork” for a widely anticipated U.S.-North Korea summit.

At the end of March, Chinese President Xi Jinping also surprised the world by hosting Kim Jong Un in Beijing for an unexpected summit. While Xi may think China gained the diplomatic advantage by being the first foreign leader to meet the Hermit Kingdom’s leader, he actually ceded leverage to the U.S. by showing that China retains its unique political influence over North Korea. Thus, in the run up to his own summit with Kim, President Trump can and should push China hard to ensure that North Korea puts real denuclearization proposals on the table.

China’s political relations with its neighbor have been strained for the past few years. Since taking power in 2011, Kim Jong Un has never met with his Chinese counterpart, let alone any Chinese senior official, until this recent summit in Beijing. Kim even purged his own uncle, Jang Song Thaek, North Korea’s primary interlocutor with China, to show Beijing he wanted Pyongyang to be more autonomous. In effect, Kim traded away the option of diplomacy for the freedom to conduct nearly 100 ballistic missile tests over six years.

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As Sino-North Korea political relations deteriorated, China’s government and state media have argued that the U.S. and the world exaggerate China’s leverage over North Korea. China’s former UN ambassador, Liu Jieyi, said that the U.S. and North Korea “hold the primary responsibility to keep things moving, to start moving in the right direction, not China.” Chinese academics have suggested China no longer has any political leverage since bilateral relations with North Korea nearly reached a “freezing point”. Even American policy makers and analysts debate the extent of China’s political influence over North Korea. At times, President Trump has lambasted Beijing for not doing enough to pressure Pyongyang, while other times admitting, “I felt pretty strongly that they (China) had a tremendous power over North Korea. But it’s not what you think.”

Despite these tensions, China never lost its most important sources of leverage over North Korea. Specifically, Beijing’s unwavering security assurances provide the confidence necessary for Kim to pursue his nuclear program.

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While diplomatic engagement may have drastically decreased over the past few years, China ensures the Kim regime’s survival through its weak enforcement of sanctions. China not only provides up to 90 percent of North Korea’s trade, but also provides the main conduit to foreign markets for North Korea’s sanctions evasion network, according to the Treasury Department. China cherry-picks what sanctions to enforce in order to create an impression of compliance while creating new back doors for Pyongyang to exploit.

Xi and Kim’s recent summit seems to confirm Pyongyang’s dependence on Beijing. Despite playing diplomatic hardball with China for the last seven years, Kim’s sudden acceptance of Xi’s summit invitation suggests that Pyongyang needs the support of its historic ally when facing the U.S. and its allies on the diplomatic stage.

However, at the same time that it affirmed Beijing’s status as the senior partner in its relationship with Pyongyang, the summit also hands leverage to Washington as the Chinese can no longer fall back on excuses that they exercise no control over North Korea. The Trump administration, therefore, should now use this to pressure China to do more in holding Pyongyang accountable for its destabilizing activity.

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Since the summit, Beijing continues to send mixed signals on its commitment to enforce sanctions. In contrast to blocking U.S. proposed designations of 10 shipping vessels last December, Xi recently imposed a trade ban on 32 dual-use items pursuant to UN Security Resolution 2375, and approved UN Security Council designations, which included two Chinese companies.

Yet, Beijing offsets its positive sanctions actions by backsliding on other enforcement measures. Radio Free Asia reported just last week that China is allowing North Korean laborers to return after China’s government kicked North Korean workers out and stopped issuing work visas last October. More importantly, Xi continues to ignore the banks, companies, and individuals facilitating North Korean sanctions evasion activities.

The Trump administration in turn should warn Xi of the consequences of backpedaling on sanctions and test Beijing’s commitment to Pyongyang’s denuclearization. If there is further indication that Xi prematurely reduces China’s economic pressure on North Korea, the Trump administration should sanction the Chinese companies, banks, and individuals enabling this activity. If China indeed envisions itself as a “responsible stakeholder,” Xi should prove that Beijing will maximize its leverage to curb Kim’s unacceptable behavior or risk the consequences of enabling and perpetuating this problem.

Mathew Ha is a research associate at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, focused on North Korea. Follow him on Twitter @MatJunsuk.

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@FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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