Trump may have given Kim an offer he dares not refuse, despite Beijing's objections

China’s President Xi Jinping and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un have applied the brakes on hopeful plans for a historic June 12 meeting between President TrumpDonald John TrumpFamily immigration detention centers could be at capacity within days: report Trump likely to meet with Putin in July: report DOJ requests military lawyers to help prosecute immigration crimes: report MORE and Kim, and the president has now wisely cancelled the summit. This is a good thing for a couple of reasons. 

First, the Trump administration can use some breathing room to devise a coherent negotiating strategy for a conversation with potentially momentous consequences. Perhaps even more significantly, the last-minute intervention of Xi — who apparently summoned Kim to Beijing for their second meeting in less than a month after three years of mutual isolation — exposes China’s long-term deceit and hypocrisy on the North Korea nuclear crisis.

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Since the inception of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, Washington has sought Beijing’s help in trying to roll them back. The response was always the same: (a) China has no real ability to control its communist ally’s behavior, and (b) the issue is one for Washington to resolve through bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang.

 

Four U.S. presidents over almost as many decades were unable to find the right combination of incentives and disincentives, promises and threats that would motivate successive North Korean leaders to come to the table with a serious commitment to end the nuclear program. Nor were they able to dissuade Beijing, despite its periodic mouthing of “concerns” about Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, from continuing to hang back and let Washington do the heavy lifting.

But now, President Trump, with his direct and unorthodox style, seemed to have found the magic formula, and he and Kim were poised to implement a workable strategy for denuclearization.

Enter Beijing, belatedly. Apparently displeased with the Trump-Kim momentum toward a peaceful resolution, Xi persuaded his dependent ally — over whom Beijing has always said it has little or no influence — to pull back a bit while they regroup on strategy. Pyongyang blamed the disruption on the U.S.-South Korea joint exercises, but no one takes that excuse seriously. President Trump has speculated that China is influencing Kim to back away. But to what end?

A likely explanation is that an agreement between North Korea and the United States to end the nuclear threat would deprive Beijing of the benefits and leverage it has enjoyed for decades as a “responsible international stakeholder” and indispensable partner to Washington — the Chinese “good cop” to North Korea’s “bad cop.” No longer would we hear American officials advising restraint and patience toward Beijing on trade or Taiwan or the South China Sea or human rights because, after all, “we need China’s help on North Korea.”

Trump administration policies are exposing the reality that China has a vested interest in a continuing North Korea crisis and diplomatic stalemate.

There is an alternative rationale for Beijing’s subversive intervention: it sees the potential for an even worse scenario from its perspective, that Washington actually seeks internal or external regime change in North Korea. The last thing China wants is a government there more amenable to South Korean and American influence, or even reunited in a pro-Western orientation.

The fear is not unfounded, given President Trump’s recent emphasis on North Korea’s human rights situation. In the space of a few months, he delivered three speeches on the subject, including his State of the Union address where a disabled North Korean defector defiantly waved his crutches to demonstrate Pyongyang’s cruelty. That was followed by an emotional, televised meeting in the Oval Office with North Korean escapees who detailed their gruesome treatment at the hands of the repressive government.

Earlier statements by Trump, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoMattis 'not aware' of North Korea taking any steps to denuclearize Tiananmen anniversary a time to revisit China's human rights record The Hill's 12:30 Report - Sponsored by Delta Air Lines - Trump says he will sign 'something' to end family separations MORE and national security adviser John Bolton (before the two advisers took office) reinforce the administration view that Kim is not fit to govern and should be replaced.

Recognizing the risk to his denuclearization efforts, President Trump has sought to assure Kim that he would receive U.S. security “protections” along with the promised economic bounty.

Yet, after all his expressions of contempt for the moral depravity of Kim’s rule, and the hopes he has built up among North Korean exiles and in the international human rights community, it is doubtful Pyongyang (or Beijing) will ever take at face value Trump administration protestations of innocent intentions toward the regime.

It would be more honest and credible for Washington to declare forthrightly that the nuclear weapons and missile programs, along with chemical and biological weapons capabilities, are part and parcel of the humanitarian outrages the regime commits against its people. The president could look to the South African peace and reconciliation model and offer a reforming regime the prospect of prosperity and protection — which is significantly more than its Chinese ally can provide it.

That will mean denuclearization and rehumanization of the North Korean people must go hand in hand, and both must be verifiable and irreversible. As one of the North Korean women tearfully told the president at the White House meeting, she did not know what it was to be human until she escaped from that man-made hell.

The tranches of American aid that President Trump and Secretary Pompeo have promised Pyongyang for elimination of its nuclear and missile threats should be tied as well to demonstrable and measurable improvements in North Korea’s human rights situation, starting with dismantling and permanently closing the horrific internment camps scattered throughout the country. President Trump needs to avoid the charge that his intensive focus on human rights was merely tactical and rhetorical and not intended to be taken seriously. His maximum-pressure campaign has given him maximum leverage, which China is presently trying to undermine.

America’s international credibility requires that the president give Kim a clear and simple message even before they meet, if another meeting is arranged: regime security can be assured only by parallel tracks of denuclearization and political reform. There must be change from within, or it will come from a combination of internal and external forces.

If President Trump intensifies the economic and diplomatic pressure on both Pyongyang and Beijing, there may well be another opportunity for peaceful history to be made. Otherwise, thanks to China, we are headed for a different kind of history.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010.  He previously taught a graduate seminar in the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and has held nonresident appointments in the Asia-Pacific program at the Atlantic Council and the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.