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By Jung H. Pak

What a difference a few love letters—and a tweet—can make.

President Trump, in keeping with his personal brand of diplomacy, had tweeted an offer to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) just to “say hello.” Trump was on the Korean Peninsula over the weekend for a summit meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, but in crossing over the DMZ to meet with Kim, Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in the North. In this hastily arranged rendezvous, the two men smiled broadly for the cameras, greeted each other warmly, and pledged to continue negotiations.

But now that the cameras are packed away, what does all this mean for U.S.-North Korea negotiations on denuclearization? Here are three key takeaways from last weekend.

It’s still the Kim and Trump show

The two leaders appear to share an affinity and talent for big symbolic moves, improvisation, and drama. Trump’s all-too-casual proposal, via tweet, to meet—and Kim’s positive response, Kim’s fawning invitation for Trump to step into North Korea so that “your excellency…will be the first U.S. president to cross the border”—generated media speculation and an ensuing frenzy to capture the “historic” moment. For Kim, playing to Trump’s attraction to the theater of diplomacy is advantageous to his goals of burnishing his desired reputation as an international statesman and encouraging a loosening of sanctions implementation, even as the regime continues to advance its nuclear weapons program.

His positive meeting with Trump, following his failure in Hanoi to secure sanctions removal, created the illusion of progress and North Korea’s relevance on the world stage, even though his promises of economic prosperity for North Koreans seem increasingly hollow. North Korea’s state news agency celebrated the “amazing event,” as Kim’s government wasted little time in broadcasting the event for domestic audiences. Trump, for his part, has also continued to tout his positive relationship with Kim, saying that their relationship “has meant so much to many people” and claimed their rapport led to what he called a “very legendary, historic day.” He complained on Sunday that the media does not give him enough credit for his role in bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula, charging that “only the fake news” denigrate his approach to North Korea. At a press conference before the DMZ visit, Trump said of Kim that “we understand each other,” adding: “And sometimes that can lead to very good things,” underscoring that the president still sees resolution of this complicated national security issue as revolving around his personal rapport with Kim.

Reliance on top-down approach likely to hamper working-level progress 

Trump and Kim agreed to resume nuclear talks between the two countries, stimulating hope among expert observers that the months-long diplomatic stalemate might be coming to an end. Yet beyond the pomp and pageantry, Trump’s smile and handshake diplomacy has yet to deliver concrete results. The first summit in Singapore, which the U.S., North, and South Korea celebrated as a historic first step toward denuclearization and peace, led to little progress, necessitating a second summit in Hanoi to revive negotiations. But failure also marked the second meeting, as the two sides left without an agreement.

Since then, the North Korean regime has refused to engage in working-level discussions with the U.S., issued aggressive statements demanding that Washington change its “gangster-like” approach to North Korea, and lobbed short-range ballistic missiles in May in contravention of U.N. sanctions against such launches. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters on Sunday that working-level talks would begin in mid-July, and predictably set an optimistic tone, but the negotiators will have the difficult task of producing even a common definition of denuclearization, much less a roadmap for how the two sides will get there.

There is little incentive for the regime to make significant changes to its Trump-centric approach.

Moreover, President Trump’s apparent preference for the top-down approach and strong hints about a future summit, possibly at the White House, undermines the efforts of Special Representative for North Korea Policy Steve Biegun, who has had little traction with his counterpart. Given that the DMZ meeting occurred at the president’s initiative, without any concessions from Kim, there is little incentive for the regime to make significant changes to its Trump-centric approach.

President Moon’s star shines briefly, but likely to dim

Moon’s appearance with Trump and Kim at the DMZ was a brief shining moment for the South Korean leader, who has struggled unsuccessfully to revive his facilitator role and entice the Kim regime to engage with Seoul. Unfortunately for Moon, the last week’s luster is likely to fade. South Korean opposition lawmakers have already slammed him for appearing as a “guest” in negotiations that have major ramifications for Seoul. The Blue House attempted to spin the turn of events, saying that Moon’s dialogue with Kim would come at an unspecified later date. However, the facts on the ground are the same: Kim doesn’t need Moon to get access to Trump and Moon is powerless to lift sanctions, Kim’s key concern. In fact, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry blasted South Korean authorities just a few days ago, warning them to “mind their own internal business” with regards to nuclear talks. Kim’s recent high-level meetings with Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and now Trump, while keeping Moon at arm’s length, suggest that he has little appetite for improving inter-Korean ties.

Brookings intern Ethan Jewell contributed to this piece.

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By Thomas Wright

Vyacheslav Molotov served in senior positions in the Soviet Union for more than a quarter century, including 10 years as Stalin’s foreign minister. He was dismissed in 1949 when he fell out of favor with Stalin, but he found his way back in to the Foreign Ministry after the dictator’s death in 1953. Over the next four years, he fought with the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. According to Molotov’s biographer, Geoffrey Roberts, Khrushchev “accused Molotov of being a dogmatist whose actions as foreign minister had united the USSR’s imperialist enemies.” The Soviet plenum passed a resolution that charged Molotov with opposing measures “to reduce international tension and strengthen world peace.” Molotov was dismissed from his post and named ambassador to Outer Mongolia (what is now independent Mongolia). This role wasn’t unimportant, and his fate was sweeter than those of Khrushchev’s other party rivals—Georgy Malenkov was made to manage a power station in Kazakhstan and Lazar Kaganovich a potash factory in the Urals. Even so, Molotov was far, far from the action. Banished to Outer Mongolia quickly entered the English lexicon.

On June 30, another mustachioed foreign-policy chief found himself in Outer Mongolia. John Bolton was sent to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, while President Donald Trump stepped into North Korea to meet Kim Jong Un. Trump was accompanied by loyalists—Mike Pompeo, Mick Mulvaney, Jared and Ivanka Trump—and a new adviser, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who is credited with talking the president out of striking Iran as his Cabinet had recommended. Trump invited Kim to the White House, and reports swirled that the United States would settle for a nuclear freeze by North Korea instead of denuclearization. In response, Bolton tweeted, “Neither the NSC staff or I have discussed or heard of any desire to ‘settle for a nuclear freeze by North Korea.’ This was a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President. There should be consequences.” The words NSC staff or I were doing a lot of work, implying that others in the administration were behind the move. We now know that Stephen Biegun, the State Department’s special envoy to North Korea, briefed reporters on Pompeo’s plane back from Korea that the administration was considering a “complete freeze” to unlock the talks.

Trump’s foreign policy has been full of twists and turns, but it has also followed a clear narrative arc. The 10-day period from June 20—when Trump reversed himself on Iran strikes—to the DMZ visit was among the most significant of his presidency, as he was forced to come to terms with the consequences and contradictions of his own decisions. Over the course of three decades, Trump has carefully nurtured two images of himself—as a dealmaker, and as a militarist. Bolton did all he could to encourage the latter. But even from faraway Ulaanbaatar this past weekend, it was clear that, when made to choose, Trump would opt for the former.

To understand where we are and where we are going, we must first understand where we have been. Trump became president with a set of deeply rooted visceral instincts about the world—hostility to alliances, skepticism of free trade, and support for authoritarian strongmen—but little idea about how to convert these beliefs into policy. He had few advisers qualified for high office who believed what he believed. He was insecure. And so he turned to a number of highly experienced businessmen and former military officers to fill key national-security and foreign-policy positions—John Kelly, James Mattis, H. R. McMaster, Gary Cohn, and Rex Tillerson. These men saw their role as constraining the president, not empowering him. They measured their success by what they prevented from happening, rather than by what they made happen. In the Trump epoch, this was the age of constraint.

The president did not always listen to the “axis of adults.” In fact, he took pleasure in defying them on occasion, but he usually returned to the fold under pressure. While delivering a speech at the new NATO headquarters in May 2017, Trump raised doubts about his commitment to the alliance when he took out a sentence endorsing Article 5, the mutual-defense clause of the NATO charter. After the ensuing uproar, he was persuaded to state his support for Article 5 at a press conference with the Romanian president and in a subsequent speech in Poland. Under the leadership of the axis of adults, the administration produced strategic documents reflecting the views of the establishment.

The president grew weary of the adult supervision and he gradually realized that he was the president. He could order his Cabinet members to do what he wished, even if they all objected. We can identify precisely when the age of constraint reached its peak and when it ended. The peak came on July 17, 2017, when the president sat in an interagency meeting to discuss the Iran nuclear deal—specifically the question of whether to recertify Iran’s compliance, an assessment that the United States was required to make every six months. Trump’s team presented him with three options, none of which involved leaving the deal. Trump was furious—he approved a recertification but promised that it would be the last one. By the next deadline, he wanted the option to leave. Bolton immediately began auditioning for the job as Trump’s top security adviser, writing an article in National Review that laid out a plan to leave the Iran deal.

For the next few months, it was clear that Trump was intent on a change. He forced out the axis of adults, replacing Tillerson, Cohn, and McMaster with individuals who placed loyalty to the president over their own independent judgment. This ushered in the second phase of his presidency—the age of action. Trump now acted more freely, pursuing his instincts even when they conflicted with the advice of his officials. He announced talks with Kim Jong Un without consulting his Cabinet. He moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. He imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum. He had a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. He started a trade war with China. His national security adviser, Bolton, effectively abolished the interagency process through which the Pentagon, State Department, CIA, and other entities have formal seats at the table where decisions are made. The removal of constraints was complete when Mattis resigned in December 2018 following Trump’s promise to withdraw troops from Syria.

For Trump, the age of action was exhilarating. It fulfilled his expectations of what it meant to be president. But it couldn’t last forever. His actions were always focused on the short term. They were frequently riven with contradictions. There never was an end goal or a strategy for how to get there. The United States is a very powerful country. It can make mistakes for some time without incurring the costs that normal powers would experience if they pursued the same path. But it cannot do so indefinitely.

The age of reckoning finally arrived on June 21, when Trump ordered air strikes on Iran and then changed his mind. At this moment, the contradictions in his Iran policy were laid bare. Trump wanted to shred the Iran nuclear deal and impose maximum pressure on the Iranian regime. He also wanted to avoid embroiling America in a new conflict in the Middle East. He could not have both. But for more than a year, he pretended as if these two goals were not in conflict. Perhaps he believed the Iranians would surrender without a fight. Or that they would come to the negotiating table from a position of weakness. Or perhaps he did not think about the endgame at all until he had to.

For all his own flaws, Trump was not well served by his national security team. The axis of adults manipulated Trump by delaying, blocking, or blunting his requests. Bolton manipulated him by advocating for the most extreme options—such as imposing secondary sanctions on European countries to truly destroy the Iran nuclear deal, and pulling out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty—when more modest ones would have sufficed. Bolton’s priority has always been to advance his unilateralist theory of international law, and he seems unable to think strategically about America’s interests.

It has been obvious for months that Trump did not want war with Iran, but Bolton kept the president from hearing from officials who would offer a contrary view to the hawks. Never one for protocol, Trump decided to go outside normal channels and started talking with Carlson, who now appears to be a confidant. It says a lot about Bolton’s own insecurity that he would prefer to put his boss in the position of relying on a talk-show host rather than allow an interagency meeting where a diversity of views might be raised.

In the reckoning, there is some clarity. It is now clear that Trump wants talks with Iran, just like with North Korea. Calling off the strikes was the right judgment call, but things should never have gotten to that point. Foreign governments now know what makes Trump tick. Pyongyang, Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and others are no doubt taking copious notes. Trump’s team will be tempted to correct course—as it did by imposing tough new sanctions in the days after the Iran-strike decision—but the damage is done.

The contradictions are catching up with Trump elsewhere. The DMZ summit confirmed that, if forced to choose between denuclearization and a good relationship with Kim Jong Un, he will choose Kim. In Venezuela, he was told that forcing Nicolás Maduro out of power would be an easy win. It was not. Faced with the choice between escalation and intervention on the one hand and disengagement on the other, he admonished his hawkish aides and chose the latter course. He was right not to intervene, but once again a crisis had reached a point it shouldn’t have.

On China, Trump embraced foreign-policy hawks to create leverage that would compel Beijing to reach a trade deal. However, it looks like he has to choose between an agreement and efforts to counterbalance Chinese power. In Osaka, he chose to keep the deal alive and reversed his decision to ban American companies from providing Huawei with technology. As time goes on, he may continue to prioritize economic gains over strategic concerns.

The era of action ultimately forced Trump to choose dealmaking over militarism. He could change his mind in the future—particularly if he thinks he will look weak for not responding to new provocations, real or perceived—but the frame for the next 18 months appears to be set. A former senior official in the George W. Bush administration who is sympathetic to Bolton on some issues told me that Trump is so wrapped up in the image of a dealmaker, yet so ignorant of the issues, that he will “sign on to half-assed deals that he does not understand.” Referring to Iran, he said, “Does anyone think Pompeo’s strict conditions and objectives for negotiations will remain in place” once Trump gets involved? When a business deal that Trump made as a developer turned sour, he would go to court for a do-over. But taking a foreign-policy risk is different. As the former Bush official pointed out, the president has “no option of taking the country into Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings if it doesn’t work out.” By the time the bill comes due, the 2020 election will probably be over, so he’s unlikely to care.

Trump will still act freely in accordance with his own instincts on other fronts. It was obvious in Osaka that his heart is with other authoritarian leaders. He embraced Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and joked with Putin about Russian election interference. He did not know what Putin meant by his comment that Western liberalism is obsolete, and didn’t care to find out. Meanwhile, U.S. relations with the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan are at post–Cold War lows. It is often, and rightly, said of Trump that he is undisciplined and loses interest in subjects quickly. But he has slowly and steadily chipped away at the pillars of the free world and used the rubble to lay the foundations of an illiberal alternative.

As during the previous twist in the narrative, Trump now finds himself with a national-security team out of sync with his preferences. Changes are inevitable. Pompeo will likely survive. He is nothing if not adaptable. After the Iran decision, he and Vice President Mike Pence let it be known that although they supported military action, they were equally enthusiastic about the president’s U-turn. It’s hard to see how Bolton can stay. Trump has long known that Bolton wants war more than he does. He sidelined him on North Korea and overruled him on Iran. For his part, Bolton has privately attacked Pompeo, long a Trump favorite, as falling captive to the State Department bureaucracy and has predicted that the North Korea policy will fail.

Bolton has given an unusually large number of interviews to reporters and has been rewarded with positive profiles lauding his influence and bureaucratic prowess. Those of us who predicted that he would cling to the post of national security adviser, as it would be the last job he’d ever get, may have been wrong. In fact, Bolton looks and sounds as if he is preparing to exit on his own terms. Better that than being sent on a never-ending tour of the world’s most obscure places. For Bolton, leaving because he’s too tough for Trump is the perfect way to save face. Otherwise, he may be remembered as the man who presided over one of the weakest national-security teams in modern American history and someone whose myopic obsessions—such as international treaties and communism in Venezuela—meant the United States lost precious time in preparing for the national-security challenges of the future.

Who will replace Bolton is unclear. The best-case scenario would be Biegun, the North Korea envoy. He was rumored to be the runner-up to Bolton for the post in 2018. (Mattis and Kelly pushed for him, although at that point he had not spent time with Trump. Now he has.) Trump may see him as the man to oversee his various negotiations, as he has on North Korea. But will Trump go for a mainstream figure who would not be out of place in a traditional Republican presidency?

If the past is prelude, Trump may turn instead to his favorite source of information, Fox News, just as he did for Bolton. One of Tucker Carlson’s frequent guests on his show is a retired Army colonel by the name of Douglas Macgregor. Macgregor served in the first Gulf War and appears to be ideologically aligned with Carlson, favoring retrenchment from the Middle East and good relations with authoritarian states. His appointment would be treated as a calamity by the Republican foreign-policy establishment—which is one reason it may appeal to the president. Appointing a cheerleading cable-news commentator to one of the nation’s most senior posts sounds ludicrous, but—as Carlson’s recent role demonstrates—it is the way we live now.

One way or another, Trump seems determined to present an image of himself in 2020 as a dealmaker who is getting tough with allies who have taken advantage of the United States and making peace with the country’s enemies. The risks are enormous. Trump may strike bad deals. He could permanently weaken America’s influence and encourage aggression against allies. But it may work for him politically, throwing the Democrats off balance and setting the stage for a second term in which he will be empowered to follow his instincts to their logical conclusion. The bullets Trump never fired in his first term—such as withdrawal from NATO and the World Trade Organization—may be put back in the chamber. The 75-year-old American-led international order will be back in his firing line. Men like Pompeo may tell themselves they can steer him in a different direction. But if they finally stand up to him, they may find themselves with urgent business to attend to in Ulaanbaatar or, worse still, at a potash factory in the Urals.

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By Jasmine Zhao

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By Michael E. O'Hanlon

According to recent news reports, following the third meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which occurred last week at the Korean DMZ, the Trump administration has a new idea about how to negotiate with Kim. Rather than pursue complete elimination of all of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, the Trump administration would aim for a more modest trade as at least an interim step. It would reportedly require North Korea to verifiably dismantle all capabilities it possesses to make more bombs, in exchange for a partial lifting of the sanctions that have driven North Korea’s economy into the tank.

We do not really know for sure that this proposal is formal Trump policy. Indeed, national security advisor John Bolton has just tweeted his apparent wariness. But it is hard to see why Kim and Trump keep talking if they are not moving towards this kind of compromise. The terms of such an agreement would follow logically from the February Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, where the North offered to dismantle some of its nuclear production capability in exchange for a lifting of all sanctions, and then President Trump walked. Washington’s new proposal would simply toughen and improve the terms of this kind of trade, requiring the dismantlement of all plutonium and enriched uranium infrastructure in exchange for a lifting of some of the sanctions.

A smart deal

Provided that verification is good, and that some sanctions are retained even after such an agreement was struck, this would be a smart deal. It would not be perfect, and would not achieve the complete denuclearization of North Korea that Trump initially insisted upon. But it would identify, and pursue, the intersection of what is realistic with what is desirable. It would reduce the risks of war and limit the damage done by nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia.

North Korea has an estimated 20 to 60 nuclear bombs today—and is still making more as best we can tell. It views those weapons as the proud legacy of Kim’s father and grandfather, and the ultimate insurance that the younger Kim will not suffer the fate of Saddam Hussein or Moammar Gadhafi, both of whom wound up dead after fighting the United States without nuclear weapons. It is hard to see North Korea giving up those bombs even if sanctions remain in place indefinitely (though admittedly we cannot be sure). North Koreans have talked about being willing to eat grass to keep their nuclear arsenal. Kim and his cronies will always have their caviar and cognac, but there can be little doubt that the North Korean leader would be willing to see his own people continue to suffer as long as he keeps hold of his ultimate guarantee of political and personal survival. Striving for complete North Korean denuclearization is a bridge too far.

But perhaps Kim has concluded that 20 to 60 (or 70, or 80!) bombs is enough. And perhaps he is also willing to make permanent his moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, provided the United States and South Korea cap the size of their military exercises.

We can live with such a deal, too. If North Korea can be persuaded to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure, its future arsenal will be forever capped at or below its current size. Trump could then argue that his North Korean deal was better than Obama’s Iran deal, because the former placed permanent limits on North Korea, whereas the latter’s provisions largely would be lifted by 2023-25.  Also, for all of North Korea’s many flaws, it has not perpetrated ongoing terrorism or other forms of violence in the region since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011.

A realistic solution

Trump would be wise not to boast too much about a deal that left one of the world’s worst dictators in possession of nuclear bombs and allowed it to resume trade and investment with other nations. But by giving North Korea a stake in peace, and a stable northeast Asia, it would on balance probably reduce the risks of war. So might President Trump’s unorthodox style of diplomacy with Kim—which may verge on the distasteful in some ways, but also probably does improve trust somewhat better the two longtime foes.

Under such a deal, U.N. sanctions that have been imposed in recent years would presumably first be suspended, then lifted. It is these sanctions that really hurt North Korea, because they prevent its normal economic dealings with China and South Korea in particular, as well as with Russia and some Southeast Asian nations. As a result of these sanctions, imposed largely in 2016 and 2017, North Korea’s trade appears to have shrunk by more than half despite some cheating and sanctions evasion.

But most U.S. sanctions that have been imposed on North Korea over the decades should remain in effect even after the U.N. sanctions are gone. Most American aid, trade, investment, and interaction should still be banned under such an accord. So should assistance from organizations like the World Bank, where the United States has a major influence. North Korea would not be formally recognized as a nuclear-weapons state. Any peace treaty and any U.S. diplomatic presence would be viewed as matter-of-fact mechanisms to enhance future communication, not as great accomplishments to celebrate. North Korea would still be viewed as a pariah nation, armed to the teeth and brutal in its treatment of its own people. Only when North Korea gives up all its bombs, scales back its threatening conventional and chemical weapons, and starts to open up its gulag-style prisons would truly normal relations become possible with America. Only then would the U.S. sanctions be lifted. That day may not arrive for decades, admittedly.

If President Trump is leaning towards such a deal, John Bolton will still have a useful role to play in making sure that Washington does not give away the store in the process. But Bolton, and Democrats as well as other Republicans, should support the basic idea of a compromise that caps the North Korean arsenal in exchange for partial sanctions relief.  Personally I wouldn’t give anyone a Nobel Peace Prize for it. But it would be better than any realistic alternative, and better than any deal we’ve managed to strike with North Korea to date.

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By Amanda Sloat

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By Jung H. Pak

Chinese president Xi Jinping met with Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang last week, the first time a Chinese head of state has visited North Korea since 2005. The two sides pledged to improve bilateral ties and to deepen cooperation and increase exchanges toward “cementing mutual understanding and trust.” The meeting was the fifth time Xi and Kim have met in a little over a year and seemed appropriate for an alliance that was forged in blood when Chinese troops aided Pyongyang during the Korean War in 1950. But the cheering North Korean crowds and red-carpet treatment that greeted Xi upon his arrival in Pyongyang are unlikely to unravel the deep mistrust that have marked the Chinese-North Korean relationship since Kim Jong Un came to power in December 2011.

Kim Jong Un had kicked off 2019 with a visit to Beijing in early January, probably looking to bolster bilateral ties, mitigate international sanctions, improve North Korea’s economic situation, and reinforce his status as a responsible leader of a nuclear-armed state. Indeed, in his latest meeting with Xi on his (Kim’s) home turf, Kim predictably tried to put the onus on Washington for the stalemate in nuclear talks. According to news reports, Kim said that North Korea had not “received positive responses from the party concerned,” meaning the Trump administration, despite Pyongyang’s “active measures to avoid tension…on the Korean Peninsula.” Xi, for his part, welcomed the warming of China-North Korea ties over the past 18 months, perhaps seeking to revitalize Beijing’s role in Korean Peninsula issues, avoid being sidelined in North Korean denuclearization discussions, and prevent a return to the “fire and fury” rhetoric that brought the U.S. and North Korea to the brink of conflict in 2017.

The intensity of China-North Korea diplomatic engagement in recent months belies the strained bilateral ties that marked the first seven years of Kim’s rule. Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, had sought to strengthen the relationship with Beijing in order to bolster his son’s succession prospects and to mitigate the impact of international opprobrium and sanctions for his nuclear activities. The elder Kim visited China four times between 2010-2011 and secured robust economic aid from from then-Chinese president Hu Jintao whose concern for stability during the unprecedented second dynastic succession in North Korea made him more amenable to pledges of economic and political support to the often-troublesome neighbor.

However, on assuming leadership, young Kim placed a higher priority on developing and “completing” the nuclear weapons program—and on North Korea’s ability to demonstrate a capability to hit the United States with nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles—than on dealing with China’s preference that for stability. He pressed the accelerator on strategic weapons development despite Beijing’s admonitions and in open defiance of President Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2012. Kim was probably seeking to show that he was determined to show his toughness to internal and external audiences and that he would be beholden to no one, not even his rich and powerful neighbor.

In his first six years in power, the young Kim has conducted nearly 90 ballistic missile tests, including intercontinental ballistic missiles—three times more than his father and grandfather combined—and conducted four of the regime’s six nuclear tests. Kim’s actions earned international condemnation and a slew of United Nations sanctions. Kim also ratcheted up tension with South Korea, issuing threats to hit the South Korean presidential Blue House, firing artillery around the islands in the Northern Limit Line (the disputed maritime border), and nearly bringing the two Koreas to the brink of war after a North Korean landmine maimed two South Korean soldiers who had been patrolling the Demilitarized Zone.

Meanwhile, Kim did little to build ties with Beijing. His aggressiveness tested Chinese tolerance, which had been waning since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 and its withdrawal from the Six-Party Talks nuclear negotiations in 2009. As high-level exchanges came to a near standstill, Kim thumbed his nose at China’s support for United Nations sanctions and conducted ballistic missile tests before Xi’s convening of priority Chinese events such as the Belt and Road Forum in May 2017. An exasperated Xi Jinping ramped up the pressure and supported U.N. sanctions in 2016 in 2017 that imposed sectoral sanctions on important North Korean industries, reducing North Korean exports to China by a whopping 88 percent last year.

The fissures in the relationship were manifest in other ways. The Chinese government over the past decade opened up the space for public criticism of North Korea in authoritative media, suggesting that Chinese leaders were questioning the strategic value of the alliance with Pyongyang. Xi’s 2014 visit to South Korea before going to North Korea and his cozying up with then-South Korean president Park Geun-hye signaled that the relationship with Pyongyang was at rock-bottom.

Nevertheless, the spate of Xi-Kim meetings in recent months suggests that the two sides still see value in maintaining the relationship and that we should anticipate additional high-level exchanges and cultural, economic, and educational delegations between the two sides. But in refurbishing bilateral relations, Xi also seeks to project Chinese regional leadership, remind Kim of his dependence on China, and rein in the young leader’s aggressive proclivities by encouraging a focus on economic development. For his part, Kim is likely to continue trying to ensure Beijing’s economic and political support, even as he refuses to abandon his nuclear weapons program. He is also probably looking to use his improved relationship with Xi to amplify his message that he will not denuclearize without “security guarantees” from the United States, impede coordination between Beijing and Washington on sanctions implementation, and cast blame on the U.S. for lack of progress.

Despite the summit, Xi and Kim are unlikely to develop a genuinely deep or warm personal relationship, at least in the near future, so sustained strategic cooperation will be constrained by mistrust, their 30-year age gap, and conflicting interests between Beijing and Pyongyang. But Xi and Kim’s mending of fences could pose a risk to U.S.-China cooperation on North Korean denuclearization. Washington’s challenge, then, is to ensure that China’s efforts to draw North Korea closer do not undermine the pressure campaign that was designed to sharpen Kim Jong Un’s choice and warn Kim that he can’t have both nuclear weapons and economic development. After all, Kim’s comment to Xi that he would exercise “patience” was a veiled threat not just for Washington, but also for Beijing, so it is in China’s interest to work with the U.S. on this shared security problem.

Hannah Cole, a former Brookings intern, contributed research to this piece.

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By Jasmine Zhao

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By Jasmine Zhao

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By Jasmine Zhao

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Brookings - North Korea by David Dollar, Elizabeth Rosenberg - 2M ago

By David Dollar, Elizabeth Rosenberg

Elizabeth Rosenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, joins David Dollar to discuss the role financial and economic sanctions play in U.S. foreign policy. Their conversation outlines how sanctions have been imposed against Iran and North Korea, why the U.S. is uniquely positioned to use sanctions as an instrument, the strength of the dollar, and concerns with sanctions being overused as a means for reaching diplomatic ends.

Related content: 

Wendy Cutler on how to enforce a US-China trade deal

Janet Yellen on monetary policy, currencies, and manipulation

Economic Dominance, Financial Technology, and the Future of U.S. Economic Coercion

Subscribe to Brookings podcasts here or on Apple Podcasts, send feedback email to BCP@Brookings.edu, and follow us and tweet us at @policypodcasts on Twitter.

Dollar and Sense is a part of the Brookings Podcast Network.

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