China threatens progress in North Korean denuclearization talks

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The road to a complete and verifiable denuclearized North Korea was always going to be a long one. But with China continuing to stoke the fire, it will only further stall progress made by the Trump administration.

On Tuesday evening at a rally in Tampa, Fla., President Trump said that “China may be getting in our way” of negotiating with North Korea, providing some insight into the increased tensions between the United States and its largest trading partner.

{mosads}While Chinese influence over North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jung Un is not new, it remains significant as the Trump administration moves forward with its ambitions for a denuclearized Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DRPK).


China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and is often viewed as the “older brother” of the brutal regime. North Korea receives nearly all of its food and energy from China; its leaders consider China’s leadership as a useful mentor, especially as negotiations continue with the United States. Kim has traveled to Beijing three times since March, including a trip that happened a week after the Singapore Summit. 

China has major stakes in the denuclearization talks and wants to ensure that, through Kim, it has a seat at the table. China does not want to see the fall of the Kim regime, nor a unified Korean peninsula that would be accompanied by consequential Western influence. Yet, China has publicly opposed DPRK’s nuclear tests, as those are viewed as provocative acts that could escalate Western involvement in the region. Furthermore, the Chinese do not want to see any type of military conflict that would result in a massive refugee crisis, precipitated by North Koreans fleeing across the 870-mile-long border with their country.

The Chinese are interested in regional stability and control. This allows them to continue to advance their military aggression into the South China Sea, to eliminate the creep of Western influence into both the region and their own nation, while continuing to take advantage of the U.S. on trade. Additionally, the Chinese steal American intellectual property at an annual cost of between $225 billion and $600 billion; they continue to bully U.S. companies into releasing technology and intellectual property in order to have access to Chinese markets. That “business as usual” situation has worked swimmingly for China, and it doesn’t want anything — including the denuclearization talks — to disrupt the old status quo.

China is a sophisticated cyber adversary as well. It has been hacking the U.S. government’s offices and operations for well more than a decade; arguably the most serious of those attacks was the 2014 hack of the executive branch’s Office of Personnel and Management, in which more than 22 million government employees’ personnel records and security clearance information were stolen.

Aside from all of the aforementioned, what can’t be ignored in all of this is our current economic relationship with China. President Trump has continuously complained about the trade deficit; on Wednesday, the Trump administration announced it may hit China with a 25 percent tariff on $200 billion in imports, if the two countries don’t make progress in correcting their massive trade gap.

All of that, combined with China’s continual meddling with the DPRK’s negotiations with the U.S., is only further straining U.S.-Chinese relations, both economically and with regard to national security.

While there have been gains with North Korea that seemed impossible, even a year ago — three hostages released, the return of the remains of 55 American service members from the Korean War, a halt to missile testing, a continuing dialogue between the two sides — there has been little practical, provable progress on dismantling the North’s nuclear program. Intelligence reports have stated that the regime is still advancing its weapons program, including nuclear-fuel production and assembling ICBMs.

President Trump received a letter from Kim Jung Un on Wednesday, said to be an ongoing correspondence, as they move forward with denuclearization. President Trump replied by tweeting: “Thank you to Chairman Kim Jung Un for keeping your word & starting the process of sending home the remains of our great and loved missing fallen! I am not at all surprised that you took this kind of action. Also, thank you for your nice letter – I look forward to seeing you soon!”

As President Trump continues to be optimistic about North Korea’s willingness to denuclearize, this will prove to be the most challenging, multifaceted negotiation of his career — and one involving a challenger, in the form of China, that is unlikely to share his ultimate interests or timetable.

Amber Smith is the former deputy assistant to the secretary of Defense for outreach and the author of the best-selling book, “Danger Close.” Smith is a former combat helicopter pilot and veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. For more information visit

Tags Amber Smith China Donald Trump Donald Trump Kim Jong Un North Korea

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