By many accounts, how to cope with Pyongyang’s nuclear threat was the most urgent issue of contention at the US-China summit in Florida on April 6 and April 7.
US President Donald Trump has rejected his predecessor’s “strategic patience” and called for tighter sanctions against North Korea and a tougher approach that include use of force.
However, US missile attacks on Syria’s air base on April 6 abruptly pre-empted and overshadowed most news reports on Trump’s talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平). Consequently, there were only scant reports concerning their deliberation on North Korea and other important issues. On the other hand, Trump’s own Twitter feed was much more informative and revealing.
For example, he posted a message on Tuesday last week: “I explained to the president of China that a trade deal with the US will be far better for them if they solve the North Korea problem.”
A follow-up post said: “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! USA.”
Was Trump disappointed because Xi was noncommittal regarding China’s position?
According to US officials who were privy to the talks, Xi did not offer Trump any public commitments during their dialogue or even in private conversations; the Chinese leader was circumspect.
It is no secret that Trump’s predecessors, US presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, believed China possessed the economic leverage and political influence to force a change in the behavior of Pyongyang’s leadership.
Hence they were apt to “outsource” Pyongyang’s denuclearization to Beijing.
Bush has vividly recounted, in his memoir Decision Points, his efforts to solicit China’s assistance.
In October 2002, Bush invited then-general secretary of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Jiang Zemin (江澤民) to visit his Crawford ranch in Texas, and suggested that the US and China combined their influence to stop North Korea’s nuclear program.
Jiang was respectful, Bush said, “but he told me North Korea was my problem, not his.”
“Exercising influence over North Korea is very complicated,” Jiang said.
After further futile discussion, Bush bluntly warned Jiang in February 2003 that “if we cannot solve the problem diplomatically, I would have to consider a military strike against North Korea.”
Was Bush bluffing?
Jiang felt he must take Bush’s warning seriously and could no longer dismiss it in a cavalier manner. After all, US troops moved into Iraq the following month. There was widespread speculation in international media that North Korea, a member of the “axis of evil,” like Iraq, could be the next target of a US attack.
An apprehensive South Korean government even dispatched its minister of foreign affairs to Washington to argue against use of force on the Korean Peninsula.
It is in this context that Beijing decided to intervene forcefully. Its primary concern was to forestall US military strikes against North Korea, which could result in uncontrollable and undesirable consequences — the collapse of then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s regime, the installation of a pro-Western government and hundreds of thousand of refuges flowing across the Chinese border.
Hence, Beijing suggested a plan to convene and host a regional conference to peacefully resolve North Korea’s nuclear program.
When Pyongyang demurred initially, Beijing displayed its resolve and cut off oil supplies to North Korea for a week, compelling Pyongyang’s participation at the conference.
Thus, under China’s aegis, the first so-called “six-party talks,” attended by North Korea, South Korea, the US, Japan, Russia and China, took place in Beijing in August 2003.
After dozens of private bilateral (the US and North Korea) and trilateral (the US, North Korea and China) meetings, and five rounds of plenary negotiations, the parties came to a general agreement and issued a joint statement in September 2005.
North Korea agreed to a staged elimination of “all nuclear weapons and its existing nuclear program.” In return, the US, South Korea and Japan agreed to work toward normalized relations with Pyongyang, and provided security assurances and economic assistance.
China and North Korea were big winners as they avoided a possible US military attack, and China was lauded as a peacemaker in the international community.
However, with the benefit of hindsight, the six-party talks were a deception and a delaying tactic used by Pyongyang, perhaps complicit with Beijing, to secure additional time for research and development of its nuclear and missile programs.
Thus, when North Korean scientists were ready, Pyongyang found an excuse to tear up the agreement and launch a Taepodong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile in July 2006, before detonating a nuclear device three months later.
Some US officials might have subsequently realized that they had been hoodwinked, but were too embarrassed to say so. At least they learned that endless talks with Pyongyang go nowhere, except toward a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Would Xi be able to help solve North Korea problem in exchange for a better trade deal as Trump has proposed?
A smart businessman and dealmaker like Trump cares about profits, but communists like Xi, Jiang or Mao Zedong (毛澤東) see national security as the foremost national priority, while business interests are expendable.
Former US president Dwight Eisenhower’s Mandate for Change 1953-56 could be instructive for Trump in dealing with Xi.
When Eisenhower came to office in January 1953, he dropped hints at the Korean Armistice Agreement in Panmunjom that in the event China refused to accede to an armistice in a reasonable time, the US was prepared to escalate the war, including possible use of nuclear weapons against military targets in China, or assisting a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) invasion of China.
Mao took Eisenhower’s threats seriously and ordered preparations for an invasion by seven US divisions, and yielded to Eisenhower’s demand and signed the Korean ceasefire agreement in July 1953.
For now, Beijing is calling for peace talks and trying to assume the role of moderator in the regional conflict, but how much is China willing to do to rein in North Korea at Trump’s behest?
Whereas China has stopped imports of North Korea’s coal — a very important commodity — it is yet to cut off its most strategic supply to North Korea — gasoline.
When US troops in South Korea are rearmed with tactical nuclear weapons to counter and destroy thousands of North Korean artillery guns and missiles deployed north of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, and when Beijing perceives a US military attack is imminent, it will show its hand and force North Korea to comply.
Rightly or wrongly, Beijing is also counting on a potential ally to be elected South Korea’s new president on May 9, who might adopt a more benign policy toward North Korea, much different from the current caretaker regime.
Changes on the Korean Peninsula cannot be foreseen. The most important point to be made is that Trump should not outsource the North Korean problem to China, rather it should be solved with US resources.
Parris Chang is professor emeritus of political science at Pennsylvania State University and former deputy secretary-general of the National Security Council.