Reliance on China to Solve North Korea is Reasonable, but Unrealistic

By: Theresa Lou, Columnist

Photo Credit: Reuters

North Korea conducted an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test on November 28, the third such test in 2017. Amidst the predictable flurry of discussions surrounding how the United States should respond to Pyongyang’s growing threat, the Trump administration remains fixated on its current approach of pushing China to do more.[i] But the administration’s approach hinges on the belief that Beijing has sufficient leverage over North Korea to influence Kim Jong-un’s decisions, an increasingly dubious assumption. Moreover, Trump does not understand the limited extent to which the Chinese government is willing to use whatever leverage Beijing has given its geostrategic calculations. Continued reliance on Chinese President Xi Jinping to “deliver” on North Korea will not only leave Trump disappointed, but also risk undermining US interests.

Pyongyang had not tested its weapons for seventy-four days before its latest provocation, fueling hopes that the Kim regime was beginning to change course. Instead, the Hermit Kingdom launched its biggest, most powerful missile—the Hwasong-15—to date, demonstrating the astounding progress North Korea’s weapons program is making despite global sanctions. Experts report that the Hwasong-15 not only flew “higher and longer than previous such launches,”[ii] but can likely also “deliver a 1,000-kg payload to any point on the US mainland.”[iii] The test came shortly after Xi sent a special envoy to North Korea to discuss the situation of the Korean Peninsula, [iv]akin to a diplomatic slap in the face for Beijing.

The Trump administration’s desire to lean harder on China, North Korea’s largest trading partner,[v] is not unreasonable—just unrealistic. For starters, Beijing’s political leverage over Pyongyang is far from what it used to be. Mao Zedong once described the relationship between the two communist countries being as “close as lips and teeth,” a bond forged in blood during the Korean War.

But times have changed. Kim has repeatedly embarrassed Xi in the short amount of time since the two men have been in power. For example, when Chinese diplomat Wu Dawei urged Kim in February 2016 not to conduct a missile test, Kim instead moved up the launch date to coincide with the eve of Chinese New Year.[vi] More recently, Kim launched a ballistic missile mid-May mere days before delegates from over fifty countries attended the inaugural Belt and Road Forum in Beijing.[vii] Whereas Kim Jong-il (the young leader’s father) traveled to Beijing seven times between 2000 and 2011, young Kim and Xi have never met. In fact, Xi’s decision to meet with former South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Seoul without having first visited Kim further exemplifies the frosty relations between the two leaders.[viii] Given that Kim has continually thumbed his nose at the Chinese government with provocative weapons tests, it is unclear whether Beijing still holds the level of political clout over Pyongyang that many US policymakers believe.

In terms of economic leverage, there is little reason to expect China to risk toppling the already unstable country with crippling sanctions due to Beijing’s geostrategic concerns. A North Korean collapse is Xi’s worst nightmare—it would result in millions of refugees fleeing across the Yalu River into northeast China and risk loose nuclear and chemical weapons on its borders.[ix] Worse yet, the ensuing chaos would likely bring about the reunification of the peninsula under democratic South Korea, thereby removing the buffer state that keeps the United States at arm’s length.[x] As Uri Friedman aptly wrote this past August, “Why would the Chinese fulfill America’s dreams only to usher in China’s nightmares?”[xi]

Moreover, experts are unclear of the extent to which Beijing could shape Pyongyang’s behavior even if it fully enforced existing UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions. In a 2016 study on the unintended consequences of sanctions on North Korea published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Security Studies Program, John Park and Jim Walsh concluded that sanctions simply increase the cost of doing business. Pyongyang monetizes the risks and pays higher commission fees, which then draws more sophisticated Chinese brokers.[xii] North Korea seems to have also found a potential partner in Russia. Bilateral trade has more than doubled in the first quarter of 2017,[xiii] and Russia has reportedly allowed eight North Korean ships carrying fuel to return home despite declaring other destinations.[xiv] These dynamics combined create a self-fulfilling prophecy: “China does not trust that it is able to stop North Korea. Therefore, China is unwilling to do everything it can to stop North Korea.[xv]

Thus far, Trump has invested heavily in cultivating a personal relationship with Xi in hopes that flattery and “better deals”[xvi] will get the Chinese president to do more on North Korea. These approaches are problematic for two reasons.

Although Beijing plays an undeniably important role in addressing the North Korean threat, relying on China to solve the issue only delays the potential for incremental progress elsewhere. Countries such as Kuwait and Qatar have agreed to stop renewing visas for North Korean workers,[xvii] but Russia continues to employ more than 20,000 North Korean laborers to work in construction and logging. Often forced to work in slave-like conditions, these workers generate significant revenue for the Kim regime.[xviii] The US government should redirect some of its efforts to ensuring that Moscow—and other consumers of the North Korea mafia state[xix] —do not continue to contribute to the regime’s coffers.

Secondly, Trump’s attempts to link disparate issues—offering China incentives in one area in exchange for its cooperation elsewhere—is both ineffective and dangerous. A transactional approach toward Sino-US relations not only makes the United States seem unprincipled, but also leads Beijing to believe that it can buy off US national interests in certain areas and cause regional actors to question US resolve and credibility when facing security questions. Linking other issues, such as trade, with the North Korea challenge also implies that Beijing’s cooperation on sanctions enforcement (for example) is a favor to the United States, even though China has a vested interest in deescalating tensions in Northeast Asia.[xx] Last but not least, such an approach provides China with opportunities to “agree” to US terms, gain benefits, and then fail to fully deliver on their promises.

The United States should continue to partner with China to enforce UN sanctions and work with US allies to bolster the security alliance. But the Trump administration would do well to not expect that the amount of effort it is spending on getting Chinese cooperation will yield commensurate results.

[i] Stephen Collinson, “Trump confronts perilous North Korean test,” CNN, November 30, 2017,

[ii] Ryan Browne and Barbara Starr, “McMaster: Potential for war with North Korea ‘increasing every day,’” CNN, December 3, 2017,

[iii] Michael Elleman, “The New Hwasong-15 ICBM: A Significant Improvement That May be Ready as Early as 2018,” 38 North, November 30, 2017,

[iv] Choe Sang-Hun, “China Envoy Discusses ‘Situation of the Korean Peninsula’ With North,” The New York Times, November 18, 2017,

[v] Jane Perlez, Yufan Huang, and Paul Mozur, “How North Korea Managed to Defy Years of Sanctions,” The New York Times, May 12, 2017,

[vi] Jane Perlez and Choe Sang-Hun, “China Struggles for Balance in Response to North Korea’s Boldness,” The New York Times, February 7, 2016,

[vii] James Griffiths, “North Korea blights China’s One Belt, One Road party with missile launch,” CNN, May 14, 2017,

[viii] “China snubs North Korea with leader’s visit to South Korea,” The Guardian, July 3, 2014,

[ix] Theresa Lou, “If Trump Wants China’s Help, He Needs to Build Trust. Here’s How.” Defense One, May 25, 2017,

[x] Ely Ratner, “Don’t Buy China’s Peace Plan For North Korea,” Fortune, March 10, 2017,

[xi] Uri Friedman, “Why China Isn’t Doing More to Stop North Korea,” The Atlantic, August 9, 2017,

[xii] John Park and Jim Walsh, “Stopping North Korea, Inc.: Sanctions Effectiveness and Unintended Consequences,” MIT Security Studies Program, August 2016,

[xiii] Andrew Osborn, “Russia throws North Korea lifeline to stymie regime change,” Reuters, October 4, 2017,

[xiv] Polina Nikolskaya, “Exclusive: From Russia with fuel – North Korean ships may be undermining sanctions,” Reuters, September 20, 2017,

[xv] Uri Friedman, “Why China Isn’t Doing More to Stop North Korea,” The Atlantic, August 9, 2017,

[xvi] Donald J. Trump, Twitter post, April 11, 2017, 4:59 AM,

[xvii] Alexander Cornwell and Ahmed Hagagy, “Qatar, Kuwait stop renewing visas for North Korean workers,” Reuters, September 19, 2017,

[xviii] Jason Aldag, “How North Korea takes a cut from its workers abroad,” The New York Times, November 1, 2017,

[xix] Robert E. Kelly, “North Korea as a ‘mafia state,’” The Interpreter, March 16, 2016,

[xx] “What the U.S. Can Do About North Korea: CFR Experts Discuss the Options,” Council on Foreign Relations, August 10, 2017,

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