Trump and Kim meet again — but where’s China?

President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpChasten Buttigieg: 'I've been dealing with the likes of Rush Limbaugh my entire life' Lawmakers paint different pictures of Trump's 'opportunity zone' program We must not turn our heads from the effects of traumatic brain injuries MORE is betting the credibility of the United States that he can convince Kim Jung-un to give up North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability in their upcoming meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam. Unfortunately, the most important authority in the North Korean nuclear threat is not at the table, at least not as a direct party in the talks.

Given Trump’s personal impulses, the danger is that he will be so desperate for an agreement that he will make significant concessions without achieving any real reductions of the North Korean nuclear threat. Over-eager is a bad place to be in any negotiation. And the current situation is a well-worn path that North Korea has traveled many times with U.S. negotiators more skilled and less impulsive than Donald Trump.

Trump gets credit for suspending North Korea’s missile and underground nuclear testing, agreed to at the Singapore summit, and for the recovery of some missing service members’ remains in exchange for a suspension in U.S.-South Korean military exercises.  But that deal, like previous ones, does not affect North Korea’s basic nuclear weapons and delivery capability.


What Kim wants from the Hanoi summit is sanctions relief, weaker bonds between the U.S. and South Korea, and the prestige of negotiating as a co-equal with the president of the United States. If he achieves any combination of these objectives without jeopardizing North Korea’s nuclear capability, the North Korean dictator will return to Pyongyang a victor.

Trump’s decision to engage the U.S. presidency in direct talks with a North Korean dictator takes the negotiations out of their proper strategic context.

North Korea is not the negotiating equivalent of the United States on nuclear threats in Asia. China is. And China is not an overt party to these talks. Trump should be negotiating directly to China, not Kim Jung-un, about North Korean nuclear capacity.

Somehow forgotten in the euphoria of negotiating with Kim Jung-un is the reality that North Korea is a satellite state of China, not some rogue regime that acts independently. North Korea is totally dependent on China, and the Kim dynasty exists at the pleasure of Peking.

Kim went to Beijing for instructions before the Singapore summit and returned to Peking to debrief them after Singapore. Kim flew to Singapore on a Chinese aircraft, and they probably had Chinese advisors in Kim’s entourage in Singapore.

Strategically, North Korea is an historic buffer between China and Japan. Mao Zedong demonstrated the importance of this buffer when he took China to war with the United States in 1950 to save North Korea from military defeat and to preserve its strategic position between China and the foreign threat to Mao’s regime. To China’s dismay, South Korea, Japan and East Asia have flourished as part of the U.S. strategy of defending democracy in the region.

I can envision a confident Xi Jinping siting in Beijing in late February practicing diplomatic ventriloquy with Kim as Kim meets Trump in Hanoi. An image of chess versus checkers comes to mind.

What does China want to come from these talks? Ultimately, China seeks the withdrawal of the U.S. military presence in South Korea and a reduction of U.S. influence in Asia.


The cost of real denuclearization in North Korea will be extreme. North Korea is very unlikely to denuclearize without a commitment by the United States to drastically reduce its military commitment to northeast Asia. In that case, the overall strategic nuclear threat to the United States posed by China would not be affected. China would be the overwhelming winner in the Trump-Kim negotiations, and the confidence in the American commitment to security in Asia would be drastically damaged.

Carefully cultivating the image of limited influence with Pyongyang for years, Beijing has avoided responsibility for enabling, if not directly creating, North Korea’s nuclear capacity. They are culpable in the current situation, and they should be held to account for the North Korean nuclear threat. They must also take responsibility for controlling North Korean nuclear weapons.

Controlling North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is in the survival interest of China — and frankly Russia. Let’s assume that the worst happens, and a rogue regime in North Korea launches one or more missiles suspected of carrying nuclear warheads toward the United States and its allies. The United States will respond immediately. When missiles and planes, potentially armed with nuclear weapons, start flying all over Asian skies, does China sit idly by and watch this play out? I don’t think so. The dangers of that scenario are as great to China as they are to the United States.

Maybe Donald Trump will get his beautiful deal without damaging U.S. security in Asia, and the North Korean nuclear threat to the American homeland and to our critical allies in Asia will be no more. But I doubt it.

The most likely outcome of the Trump-Kim summit is a marginal deal on accountability of weapons, a timeline and destruction of a few nuclear facilities in exchange for limited sanctions relief. That would allow the needy U.S. president to wave a “successful” agreement to the gullible when he flies back to Washington.

Trump has gone a long way to undercut NATO and relationships in Europe critical to American security in Europe. Let’s hope he doesn’t do the same thing in Asia.

The thought of Donald J. Trump, who trusts his gut over the experience of professionals, negotiating nuclear weapons in Asia is more than a little alarming.

James W. Pardew is a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as Deputy Assistant Secretary General of NATO and is the author of "Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans."