Research Fellow & Director of HDR, Department of International Relations
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As the world reacts to North Korea’s ICBM test, our IR academics have been adding their views to the global media coverage. Dr Feng Zhang is quoted in the New York Times, and Dr Ben Zala was interviewed on Radio 2GB Sydney and ABC Radio (at the 1:38 mins mark). Dr Zala also published the following opinion piece in the Straits Times, 7 July 2017.
US must give China reason to help rein in North Korea
Following North Korea’s successful intercontinental ballistic missile launch, very little has changed. Despite the rhetoric from the United States about “all options” being on the table, including using military force to disarm Mr Kim Jong Un’s regime in Pyongyang, the current policy is a continuation of the old one. What the previous Obama administration used to refer to as “strategic patience” - relying on sanctions to force the North Koreans back to the negotiating table - is alive and well.
A military strike is simply too difficult - there are too many targets, many of them difficult to locate. On top of this, North Korea’s ability to retaliate with non-nuclear options (including chemical weapons) against US allies like South Korea and Japan makes a pre-emptive military strike virtually impossible.
So despite President Donald Trump’s talk of “strategic patience” being over, patience is precisely what the current approach is all about. Applying ever greater sanctions and waiting for them to do their job requires patience but it also requires something else. Sooner rather than later, Washington will need to make some painful concessions to Beijing.
Under certain circumstances sanctions can be effective. But they are really only helpful if they encourage North Korea back to the negotiating table. Heaping financial pressure on Iran via a series of increasingly tough economic sanctions forced Tehran to talk. This resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (known as the “Iran deal”) signed in 2015, which effectively halted the weaponisation of Iran’s civil nuclear capabilities.
The problem at the moment is that Washington is not serious about negotiations. The Trump administration has repeatedly stated that North Korea will have to give up its nuclear weapons programme before the US agrees to direct talks. Yet if Pyongyang gives up its one bargaining chip, what exactly will the parties be talking about? Denuclearisation must be the object of any renewed attempt at negotiations, not a precondition.
But before we get to that point, the sanctions themselves have to be harsh enough to leave Mr Kim with no choice but to agree to open a dialogue. For this, China must be on board. The sanctions on Iran forced it to negotiate because the Iranian economy was reliant on Western economies, particularly in Europe. In the case of North Korea, that reliance is on China, both in terms of Pyongyang’s exports of things like coal and also, and most crucially, for its imports of fuel.
As China is so critical to ensuring that the sanctions have some bite, the central question is: Does China actually want North Korea to negotiate away its nuclear weapons?
For China, North Korea still serves as a very useful buffer between its own border and South Korea, a US military ally that hosts over 28,000 US troops. Nuclear weapons are an insurance policy for Pyongyang against any attempt at regime change. That insurance policy works in China’s favour too. So in order for negotiations to begin, the sanctions need to put pressure on North Korea. For the sanctions to work, China must be on board. For this to happen, the US needs to give China a reason to cooperate. Therefore Washington will need to make some serious concessions to China to get it to apply serious sanctions on North Korea.
There are a number of areas in which Washington could make concessions to Beijing in order to achieve this aim.
China’s favoured option is a reduction of joint US-South Korea military exercises and a freeze in the deployment of ballistic missile defence in the region, such as the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system. Both are difficult for the United States without it appearing to abandon one of its key allies (with an obvious impact on Washington’s reputation with other allies).
Similarly, the US could move to reduce the tens of thousands of troops that it currently deploys in South Korea and Japan, both of which make China nervous about a future conflict, particularly over Taiwan. If either of these options is to work, it would need to appear as if the decision to reduce troop numbers and cooperation came from South Korea and Japan themselves.
Relatedly, reducing or even freezing arms sales to Taiwan would be an obvious way of conceding ground to China. The Trump administration is in a particularly weak position here, having just approved a sale of US$1.4 billion (S$1.9 billion).
Finally, easing off the pressure on China in relation to its activities in the South China Sea could also help encourage Chinese cooperation on sanctioning North Korea. This would not have to be a total back-down on the issue. Instead it could involve limiting the US response to public condemnation only and avoiding military manoeuvres and freedom of navigation operations.
None of these options is foolproof and it would be impossible to guarantee that they would result in full and sustained sanctions from China. All would be psychologically painful for American decision-makers as it would amount to a public acknowledgement of China’s claim to great power status.
But no matter how difficult it is, convincing China to turn the screws on North Korea will undoubtedly require offering Beijing something in return.
It is time for the Trump administration to think carefully about what it is willing to give up in its relationship with China if there is to be any hope of a negotiated solution to the North Korean crisis.