North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will be 7,500 miles away in Pyongyang on Thursday when Donald Trump hosts Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, but he’ll still be the nuclear-armed elephant in the lavishly decorated room.
North Korea was slated to be a main topic of discussion even before it conducted yet another ballistic missile test on Tuesday. Now, with the Trump administration talking tough about what will happen if Beijing fails to help tame Kim, the entire summit could hinge on him.
After the latest missile launch, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson only offered an icy no comment. But privately the administration continued its ramped up rhetoric, with one senior White House official telling reporters “the clock has now run out, and all options are on the table for us.”
China has tried to calm simmering tensions caused by Pyongyang’s actions and denied any connection between the missile test and Xi’s visit with Trump. But Joshua Pollack, a senior researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, suspects it was no coincidence. “The timing they pick often has an in-your-face quality,” he said of the North Koreans, adding that the launch sends the message “we’re here, we’re not going away, you can’t ignore us.’”
Trump has loudly and repeatedly insisted that Xi has the power to essentially flip a switch and bring North Korea to heel. Earlier this year he told Fox News that Beijing has “complete control” over its totalitarian neighbor, and in an interview with Financial Times on April 2 he said, “China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t — if they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don’t, it won’t be good for anyone.”
“If they sealed the border and nothing went in or out, it would be interesting to see how long the country could survive.”
Trump added, “if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you,” an ominous comment considering Tillerson said in March that the U.S. wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a pre-emptive strike against the North’s weapons program.
But Trump is overstating Beijing’s influence over the Kim regime, analysts who study the relationship between China and North Korea insist. And they warn that any sort of first-strike attack against a country with a nuclear arsenal and the world’s fourth-largest standing army would be a big mistake.
Pollack said China is already approaching the point “where there’s nothing left for them to do [with North Korea] that would not involve a risk of the whole country coming apart over time.” China is by far North Korea’s largest trading partner, but cutting off the supply of crude oil and other essential goods would eventually lead to collapse, likely causing a crisis that would lead to millions of refugees spilling across the Chinese border.
“If they sealed the border and nothing went in or out, it would be interesting to see how long the country could survive,” Pollack said. “But you know that is not on the agenda, nor should it be. That would be a humanitarian catastrophe of the highest order.”
Meanwhile, analysts believe that any sort of pre-emptive strike on the combative country would likely lead to a full-blown war in the region. Others have noted that China and North Korea have a “Treaty of Mutual Assistance,” which means Xi could interpret any U.S. military action against the Kim regime as an act of war against both countries.
Trump’s National Security Council recently completed a review of the options on North Korea and reportedly determined the best course of action to be “a multi-pronged approach aimed at tightening the screws on North Korea economically and militarily,” along with “new sanctions and increased pressure on Beijing to rein in its neighbor.”
“They like to know exactly where the red line is so they can cross it.”
Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a negotiator in the Six-Party Talks under George W. Bush, said there’s been a notable decline in the number of visits by high-level Chinese officials to Pyongyang since Xi and Kim assumed leadership, which he believes is the result of a cold shoulder from the North.
“Everybody thinks the Chinese are pissed off with North Korea,” Cha said. “The Chinese want to meet. They want to try to slow things down or get something going. The North Koreans don’t want to meet. I don’t think [the Chinese] have any political influence, and I don’t think the Trump administration believes that.”
Cha speculated that Trump is “leveraging his unpredictability” by threatening to go it alone on North Korea, and said Trump’s options are basically limited to sanctioning more Chinese entities that do business with North Korea. As for the pre-emptive strike, Cha said it would likely be just a “declaratory policy” where the U.S. threatens to hit first if it finds out North Korea is preparing to launch a missile capable of hitting the U.S.
“Of course, once you make that declaratory policy, everything follows,” Cha said, noting that North Korea would likely respond by pushing the envelope. “They like to know exactly where the red line is, so they can cross it.”
Xi is expected to ask Trump to lower tensions by ending the joint U.S. military drills with South Korea, shuttering the controversial THAAD missile defense system, and restarting diplomatic talks with Pyongyang. In exchange, he can offer to step up enforcement of sanctions and work with Trump on trade issues.
Trump prides himself on his ability to cut deals, but finding a palatable compromise for both sides won’t be easy. The U.S. deployment of THAAD, which former NSA Director Michael Hayden recently let slip provides radar coverage “all the way through Manchuria,” could be a sticking point, since Beijing is vehemently opposed to it.
Pollack said Trump has some degree leverage in the form of the economic relationship between the U.S. and China, but he also noted that exploiting the upper hand would come at steep cost to both countries.
“One card left to play is trying to coerce the Chinese into choosing between the survival of North Korea and the trade relationship with the United States,” Pollack said. “It’s pretty clear which is more important to them, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to like being coerced. It also doesn’t mean our tools are good enough to force that choice. They may say, ‘Do your worst,’ and then what?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that the North Korean missile test on April 4 involved a new type of solid-fuel intermediate-range ballistic missile as the U.S. military first assessed, but the Pentagon has since revised its analysis, saying it was likely an older type of Scud missile.