With the fourth nuclear test, North Korea has re-entered American politics with surprising rapidity. The result is an outbreak of mutual finger-pointing between the United States and China that is counterproductive, playing directly to Kim Jong Un’s advantage.
Republicans are quite naturally eager to blame the Obama administration for the steady march of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities. Marco Rubio, was first off the mark—calling Kim Jong Un a lunatic—but all the other candidates quickly piled on. Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State during the second nuclear test in 2009 and leaving office just before the third in February 2013, felt constrained to issue a statement through her campaign. Clinton underlined her support for the pivot “including shifting additional military assets to the theater – in part to confront threats like North Korea and to support our allies. I worked to get not just our allies but also Russia and China on board for the strongest sanctions yet.” Her answer to the current situation—as with virtually all candidates of both parties—focuses on more of the same: a mix of multilateral and bilateral sanctions, including secondary sanctions, and increased pressure on China:
“The United States and our partners, including the UN Security Council, need to immediately impose additional sanctions against North Korea. The Chinese government, which wields influence with the North Koreans, must be more assertive in deterring the North’s irresponsible actions, and it should take actions to halt prohibited activities transpiring across its borders or its firms that participate in illicit trade or proliferation will have to face sanctions. We should also work with our allies to strengthen our missile defenses.”
The issue was next picked up by Secretary of State Kerry in wider remarks on the diplomatic agenda last Thursday. The scripted remarks made mention of a call to Chinese Foreign Minister Wan Yi and the need to avoid business as usual. But in response to a question from a reporter he showed more pique with respect to North Korea’s approach, explicitly stating that the Chinese had favored a particular approach to the problem and that it had not worked.
Needless to say, this did not sit well in Beijing and Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying was quick to correct the record. “China is not the cause and crux of the Korean nuclear issue,” she said “nor is it the key to resolving the problem.” Nonetheless, China was willing to work with all parties “in a bid to safeguard the international nuclear non-proliferation regime.” However she noted that this required that efforts “shall be made in compliance with the September 19 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks to address different parties’ reasonable concerns in a balanced manner.” Translation: any discussion of denuclearization will require the US figure out what it is willing to offer in return and in particular possible security guarantees.
But talks, let alone concessions, are hardly at the top of the political agenda in the US. At the end of last week, both Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi said that a vote on pending sanctions legislation could come as early as today and with bipartisan support. Given that secondary sanctions on banks and firms doing business with North Korea are central to the new approach, there is almost certain to be more fallout on the issue with Beijing. At NKNews, Keith Luse outlines some of the risks in the sanctions legislation to humanitarian activities in the country.
Negotiations will begin in earnest this week at the UN Security Council over a resolution and multilateral sanctions. Hua Chunying’s comments suggest the bargaining is likely to be difficult. In a nice piece of journalism, Cara Anna and Matthew Pennington argue that the UN could do a lot by tightening up enforcement of existing sanctions and designating more entities and individuals. By the end of 2015, only 32 names associated with North Korea were under sanctions, compared with 121 for Iran.
The US has common interests with China on the Korean peninsula, and the two countries should seek to stay on the same page. I have spelled out what a US-China diplomacy would require in a longer piece at the Nikkei Asia Review, but the chances of success are narrow to say the least. Given where we are in the political cycle—and on the Iran deal--the Obama administration would need a clearly stated willingness by Pyongyang to put nuclear weapons on the table. The Kim regime seems to be moving in exactly the opposite direction, Secretary Kerry is ultimately right: without a bold move on China’s part, North Korea will remain an irritant between the two countries rather than example of how—working together—they can ease us back from the tensions currently roiling the region.