North Korea is big nowadays: President Trump has made it clear that he plans to finally solve the “North Korean problem” — that is, he’ll get North Korea to denuclearize itself.
This is nothing very special — for the past 25 years, every new U.S. president has promised to do something about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Some have tried negotiations, others have emphasized pressure. Neither approach has worked so far.
The Trump administration, which seems to rank North Korea high among its foreign policy problems, is choosing the hard line, but with a twist: Trump hopes to cajole China into joining him in a really tough sanctions regime. The issue was discussed during the Trump-Xi Jinping summit in April: The administration has apparently indicated its willingness to reconsider some of the United States’ anti-Chinese policies — including on difficult trade issues — if China “fully cooperates” in getting tough on North Korea.
The administration’s assumption is that Chinese sanctions would push North Korea to the brink of an economic disaster and thus prompt the leaders in Pyongyang to reconsider their nuclear ambitions. Given that China controls about 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade and also provides the country with vital aid, including shipments of subsidized fuel, the expectations seem reasonable.
The problem is, however, that Beijing has valid reasons not to be too harsh on Pyongyang. While Chinese leaders do not like North Korea’s nuclear program, they are afraid that truly comprehensive sanctions might, indeed, push North Korea to the brink of economic collapse, which would be followed by political disintegration. From their point of view, North Korea in a state of civil war would be a greater threat than the nuclear-armed but relatively stable North Korea that exists now. Even worse, a crisis in North Korea might result in a German-style reunification of the country under Seoul’s control — that is, the emergence of a united, democratic and nationalistic Korean state that would probably be an ally of the United States. This is not an outcome that would be welcomed in Beijing.
Apart from this, the Chinese experts know that North Korea sees nuclear weapons as the only guarantee of the regime’s survival and thus will not surrender its nukes even under the greatest pressure imaginable. Thus, a Chinese boycott of North Korea — something the Trump administration would like to see — would be highly unlikely to produce the desirable result of denuclearization but much more likely to provoke the kind of crisis that China fears.
So the expectations of the Trump administration are misplaced. Beijing would rather deal with consequences of a trade war with Washington than with those of a real war nearby — even though it is no hurry to advertise this position.
But should we worry about it? Should we regret that the pursuit of Trump’s Chinese dream will probably last for another few months? Perhaps not, because the alternatives are much worse.
The first alternative would be negotiation — but that will not work either. Kim Jong Un believes that before he negotiates he needs to develop and deploy an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the continental United States. His engineers are working on this project with remarkable speed and are likely to achieve success in matter of years, if not months — even though Trump tweeted in January that such an ICBM “won’t happen.”
So, once it becomes clear — once again — that neither sanctions not negotiations are effective, and North Korea gets close to becoming the world’s third country theoretically capable of obliterating San Francisco, how will the president react? A military strike might be considered an option — at least, this is what some key people in the administration have indicated many times.
However, North Korea is capable of striking back if attacked and is likely to do so — perhaps by launching a massive artillery barrage against Seoul, the huge capital located very close to the North-South border. If that happens, the South Koreans will shoot back, and in no time, the United States will find itself fighting a land war in Asia.
So perhaps one should be thankful that the Chinese are now considering cooperation on sanctions, buying time while extracting concessions from the United States on other issues. A war would be much worse. One perhaps should also hope that belief in a Chinese miracle will survive long enough for Trump to learn the lesson his predecessors had to grudgingly accept: The North Korean nuclear problem has no easy solution. In the past it has usually taken a year or two before a new administration came to accept this inconvenient truth.