For the moment, fear of US retaliation appears to have dissuaded North Korea from conducting another nuclear test. But the respite is only temporary. Lasting progress will require something more than saying a US “armada” will be diverted toward the Korean Peninsula.
To its credit, the US also seems to be redoubling its efforts to get cooperation from the one country that has the most leverage with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un: China. But if the US is to work with China, then it’s important to be realistic.
Unilaterally levying sanctions on Chinese banks and companies that do business with the North would probably only drive the two countries closer together. Instead, US officials should be conferring with their Chinese counterparts on specific measures that would both impose pain on the Pyongyang regime and disrupt the flow of money and technology that sustains its illicit weapons programs. The goal wouldn’t be to bring down Kim Jong Un, but to ensure he and those around him think twice about how much support they can continue to expect from Beijing.
The US can offer China a couple things in return, beyond the unspecified trade concessions Trump has already hinted at. First, US officials should be willing to address Chinese concerns about the future of a reunified Korean Peninsula. This might mean promising never to deploy US troops above the 38th parallel, or even to remove them from the peninsula entirely, although any commitments will have to take into account the interests of US allies South Korea and Japan as well.
To this point, China hasn’t shown much interest in such a dialogue, not least because it has little reason to trust US promises. Even the hint of such talks, though, would have the added benefit of unsettling Kim and his cronies.
Second, the US should make clear to Chinese leaders that if their pressure seems to be having an impact on the North’s behavior, it will be prepared to hold bilateral talks with the North without demanding that they lead to full and immediate denuclearization. At best, such negotiations would produce a freeze of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. It would be difficult to verify compliance; the risk of proliferation would remain.
Yet preventing proliferation is one of the obligations of a superpower. Kim cannot be allowed to develop and test a nuclear-tipped ICBM. Anything that furthers that goal is worth pursuing. Even if talks fail, they could provide the US with essential information about the North’s weapons programs, and help convince China of the need for tougher measures.
A successful deal, on the other hand, would buy the world more time to deal with the North Korean threat, expose the isolated country to more outside influences and, ideally, undermine the regime from within. President Donald Trump may not like it—few people do—but talking to your enemy is generally preferable to fighting.