North Korea, the troglodyte equivalent of a nation-state run by a 33-year-old dictator with a penchant for bad haircuts and worse suits, has been an international pariah for decades.
Since the fall of the Soviet Bloc in 1991 and a devastating famine between 1995 and 1998, its actions have become more desperate and dangerous. In a never-ending quest for food and fuel, it has acted the part of a petulant child, committing increasingly-hostile military provocations which only temporarily diminish when someone provides a handout.
The U.S. has tried time and again to negotiate with North Korea, but to no avail. In 1994, former president Jimmy Carter believed he set Kim Il-sung straight. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright drank wine and held talks with Kim Jong Il in 2000. Albright posed for photos, paid her respects at the tomb of Kim Il-sung, visited schools, and declared of her trip that “I danced with the children and I’m very satisfied.” That trip produced no lasting results other than giving North Korea a propaganda victory.
There have been two-party talks, six-party talks, and five-party talks that resulted from North Korea walking out of the six-party talks. Jimmy Carter traveled back to the country to offer his respect to the “Supreme Leader.” Bill Clinton participated in lengthy dinners and photo ops. Dennis Rodman offered to teach Kim Jong-un how to rebound in an episode of ill-planned basketball diplomacy. All of these efforts have been fruitless. Through it all, North Korea continued developing nuclear weaponry, while the U.S. allowed it to repatriate tens of millions of dollars in foreign currency reserves.
To date, U.S. containment efforts have been limited to diplomacy. An estimated 1.2 million landmines litter the demilitarized zone, and 13,000 North Korean artillery pieces (including hundreds of 240mm rockets and roughly 300 ballistic missiles) are pointed directly at Seoul, a mere 35 miles from the DMZ. Thus a military option is not particularly feasible.
The ongoing threat to Seoul has provided North Korea an international hall-pass, allowing it to flex its military might with seeming impunity. When a North Korean submarine sank a South Korean warship in 2010, killing 46 sailors, South Korea refused to respond militarily.
North Korean missile and nuclear testing has continued unabated as well. It conducted five nuclear tests in the last ten years, and twenty-six missile tests in 2016 alone, yet faced few meaningful international sanctions. This is partly due to pressure from China, which seeks to block a meaningful sanctions regime in the United Nations.
Now, North Korea seeks to actively test the mettle of President Trump. Since January, the country has intensified its rhetoric and made overt threats against U.S. interests at home and abroad. The Trump administration has refused to back down, insisting that “North Korea is looking for trouble,” that “all options are on the table,” and that the U.S. “will solve the problem without” China if it has to.
Trump recently sent an aircraft carrier, six cruisers and destroyers, and at least one nuclear submarine to patrol off the coast of North Korea, reiterating his commitment to the installation of an advanced missile defense system to protect South Korea and Japan from North Korean aggression. Tough talk, rather than weak conciliations, is the right way forward with North Korea. But talk alone will not solve the problem.
It appears Trump realizes there can be no lasting solution to the North Korean problem without enlisting the help of China, North Korea’s strongest ally and largest trading partner. But until now, China has been a largely unwilling participant in solving the North Korean calculus.
With China enjoying years of unfettered 7% GDP growth fueled by speculation and currency manipulation, it had little reason to cooperate with U.S. efforts to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambition. Now, thanks to years of economic overreaching by China, the Trump administration has a historic opportunity to pivot China away from unwavering support of North Korea. Trump said he will do just that - by using a business deal as impetus to entice China into crafting a North Korean solution.
During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit, President Trump offered friendly trade terms in exchange for China’s assistance with North Korea. Conversely, the threat was that the U.S. wouldn’t otherwise allow the outsized trade deficit between the two countries to continue.
Early signs are that China is amenable to negotiate. While it previously agreed to stop purchasing over $1 billion per year in coal from North Korea, the nation that boasts the world's largest economy is now enforcing this ban by re-loading North Korean coal ships and sending them back to North Korea. State-controlled Chinese media has recently called for restrictions on the sale of oil to North Korea, and even published editorials critical of Kim Jong-un’s regime. Some outlets are reporting that China has even stationed an additional 150,000 troops on its border with North Korea.
While the Wall Street Journal correctly notes that China “is expert at offering cosmetic concessions while adhering to what it considers its long-term national interests,” Trump’s trade concessions likely are in China’s long-term national interest.
At least for now, efforts to limit North Korean aggression seem to be trending positively. North Korea failed to conduct a widely-anticipated nuclear test to coincide with its annual Day of the Sun celebrations. While it introduced a “new” rocket (which may have been fake) and attempted to test-launch a missile that immediately exploded (possibly due to U.S. cyber sabotage), these acts represent a de-escalation of sorts.
The situation is far from normalized, and the risk from North Korea remains extremely high. But using Chinese influence to force North Korean moderation is a promising first step.
President Trump seems to understand that he must make China a partner before regional stability can be achieved. This is where a transactional presidency may provide lasting dividends. Let’s hope the president can make a deal of a lifetime that solves the North Korea problem for years to come.