North Korea’s decision to release three American prisoners is another sign that there is a real opening to change the dynamic on the Korean peninsula. In the past, the United States had to give North Korea tangible benefits just to get it to the negotiating table. Now the shoe is on the other foot. Kim Jong-un is giving Donald Trump something he wants — the release of American citizens — in order to get him to the table.
Those who credit the Trump administration for this breakthrough are on solid ground. Mr. Trump understands something that many experts in foreign policy do not understand; sometimes for diplomacy to be effective, it has to be pursued in a way that makes diplomats uncomfortable.
The president’s “maximum pressure” tactics have borne fruit because they exploited the changing strategic context in the region. The target of those tactics was never primarily North Korea, but its patron to the west. Mr. Trump wanted, and got, the attention of the Chinese.
China has always had the whip hand with North Korea — if it wanted to use it. Trade with China is the mainstay for what passes for an economy in North Korea, and Chinese support is the only real protection the North Korean regime has against all out international sanctions.
Chinese leaders have never been enamored with the North Korean nuclear program, which adds nothing to China’s own security. But in the past, China has been constrained by its own interests from coming down too hard on its ally. Beijing saw North Korea as a critical strategic buffer against America’s presence on the peninsula, and China’s leaders were concerned that too much pressure would cause the regime to collapse, inviting a mass of refugees into China and giving the United States and South Korea an excuse to invade the North and unify the peninsula.
So as long as the North Korean leadership was under some measure of Chinese control, and its provocations were sporadic, China was unwilling to take the kind of hard line that would force North Korea to change its ways. Besides, the Chinese no doubt enjoyed the spectacle of successive American presidents groveling to Pyongyang, giving benefits to its regime in return for promises that would never be kept, and wringing their hands about the need for denuclearization.
But the Americans and their allies aren’t groveling any more. Japan is beginning to rearm and to change its constitution to allow it greater capacity for self-defense, partly because of North Korea. The South Korean–American alliance is firmer than ever — the Americans even stationed a strong theater missile system in South Korea — and North Korea is the reason. As a show of force to North Korea, the Trump administration recently surged three aircraft carriers to the Western Pacific. Worst of all from the Chinese perspective, the Americans are beginning the defense buildup which China has long feared; Congress has finally raised the caps on defense spending for the next two years and added $165 billion to the topline over that time, and North Korean provocations contributed to the environment that made that possible.
It must have been galling to Beijing to watch these developments, which run counter to its strategic interests, and to know that the excesses of its own treaty ally did so much to cause them. China’s leaders want their country to be the suzerain of Asia but North Korea is not the kind of vassal they have in mind.
Moreover, Kim Jong-un has been openly defying China ever since he assumed power. In 2013, he killed his uncle, who was Beijing’s man in Pyongyang; he may have killed his half-brother last year out of concerns that his sibling might be a stooge for the Chinese to use in overthrowing his regime. Kim has repeatedly conducted nuclear tests against the wishes of Beijing and, on at least one occasion, without even giving the Chinese prior notification.
On top of all this, Kim and China’s leader Xi Jinping despise each other. Until their hastily arranged conferences this year, the two had not even met; in fact, the rumor is that until recently Kim hadn’t condescended to meet the Chinese ambassador in Pyongyang.
It was no accident that China downgraded its diplomatic relationship with Pyongyang in 2013, or that starting in 2016 Beijing supported strong sanctions against North Korea in the U.N. Security Council. Nor is it an accident that China has explicitly stated it is not required to defend North Korea in a conflict which the North provoked, or that Chinese scholars have openly been calling for a change of relationship between the two countries. Even if those scholars don’t represent the view of their political masters, the fact that they have been allowed to argue their case publicly shows that Beijing is open to what they are saying.
It’s against this backdrop that President Trump’s maximum-pressure policy should be considered. By rattling the cages as strongly as he did, and by backing it up with real steps that showed real Allied resolution, Trump catalyzed a reevaluation that had already been underway in Beijing.
China is strong enough militarily now that it does not need North Korea as a buffer. And anyway, nobody in Beijing believes that the Americans and South Koreans will invade the North unless Kim forces their hands. China’s chief objectives in Northeast Asia are preventing armed conflict and instability on the peninsula, splitting South Korea from the United States, contesting Japanese control of the Senkaku Islands, and appearing to the world to be the chief player and dominant power in the region. And North Korea has increasingly become an obstacle to those goals.
In short, Trump drove a deeper wedge between China and North Korea, and the Chinese decided that their vital interests in Northeast Asia were worth a lot more than Kim Jong-un and his force de frappe. My guess is that when Xi and Kim met earlier this year, Kim was told in no uncertain terms that the juice was no longer worth the squeeze where he was concerned.
So there is now an opening, but the Trump administration has to proceed carefully. One obvious point is that the North Koreans should not be given any benefit unless and until they comply with the demands of the United States regarding their nuclear program. The administration fully understands that; Trump is not going to make the same mistake with the North Koreans that President Obama made with Iran.
But there are a host of other questions that must be answered, and the new strategic context must be considered in answering them. What exactly does the United States want Pyongyang to do with its nuclear arsenal? Must North Korea break down its nuclear architecture entirely, or is some lesser action enough? What kind of verification process is necessary, and how will China figure in that? And what other issues are on the table? Is reunification of the peninsula in play, and under what terms? How will all this affect the American–South Korean alliance? On which points is Trump prepared to walk away from the table, and what are the alternatives if he does?
President Trump has gained the threshold objective. Both China and the United States want the North Korean nuclear problem resolved, and they have both made it a priority. Beyond that, there is no necessary convergence of interest on what the future should look like and therefore no assurance of an agreement, much less a favorable agreement. But one of Trump’s “good deals” is now at least possible; for the first time in a long time, the United States has seized the initiative from the aggressors, in this part of Asia at least.