President Donald Trump confronted his first foreign policy crisis on February 12, when North Korea tested a solid-fuel ballistic missile during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the United States. The more sophisticated missile launch highlights the advancement of North Korea’s weapons program and the urgent need for U.S.-China cooperation to address this growing regional security threat.
The Carnegie–Tsinghua Center’s Li Bin moderated a discussion with U.S. and Chinese experts who assessed the technical development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile weapons programs, and offered policy guidance on how the Trump administration can effectively work with China to achieve the common objective of a denuclearized Korean peninsula.
This event was off the record.
- North Korea’s Next Steps: The number of missile and nuclear tests carried out by the North Korean government has increased sharply over the past eight years, which a panelist said suggests that Kim Jung-Un is aiming to further increase North Korea’s capacity. Another panelist remarked that the North Korean government would need to develop an inter-continental ballistic missile—a possibility that should not be ruled out—in order to pose a real threat to U.S. homeland security. The development of such a missile would impact the geopolitical landscape of northeast Asia, the discussant continued. In light of the country’s nuclear developments, all of the discussants agreed that denuclearization is an urgent priority for both the Chinese and U.S. governments, although one panelist argued that only a partial compromise with North Korea on its nuclear program should be realistically expected.
- China’s Perception of the North Korean Threat: China’s shared border with North Korea influences the divergence between China’s priorities and those of the United States toward North Korea, one panelist remarked. Chinese leaders, the discussant said, are concerned that drastic political transformations in the Korean peninsula could impact China, and are particularly worried about a potential refugee crisis. However, all of the discussants noted that China’s recent coal ban may suggest a departure from its previous non-interventionist policies. Panelists concluded that Chinese leaders may be ready to step up their attempts to curb the North Korean military threat that they perceive as growing larger.
- Differing Goals in the Korean Peninsula: Discussants agreed that there are fundamental differences between Chinese and U.S. goals and approaches in the Korean peninsula. One panelist said that while the United States is not wholly against a regime change in North Korea, China is reluctant to adopt an interventionist policy that may lead to a political crisis close to home. Meanwhile, a panelist said that China’s strategy is to reopen the six-party talks and increase collaboration with North Korea on trade and economic matters. Another discussant argued that such a comprehensive approach would be ineffective given the current perception that North Korea is being assertive and provocative, and instead advocated for additional sanctions.
- Trump’s Policy: The Trump administration’s policy toward North Korea is still uncertain, and is likely to be revealed in the outcome of an on-going policy review, a discussant said. President Trump seems keen to deliver on his campaign promises, one panelist commented, which includes pressuring China to adopt a tougher stance and allowing South Korea and Japan to nuclearize. But the panelist added that such a policy could seriously destabilize the Korean peninsula’s geopolitical landscape and instead serve to alienate China. There is a growing debate among U.S. policymakers and analysts about whether denuclearization can only take place following of a regime change—an option China feels deeply hostile towards, panelists added.
- Bilateral Cooperation: China-U.S. cooperation in the Korean peninsula is a difficult but necessary step toward the resolution of the North Korean issue, discussants agreed. President Trump’s policy review presents a good opportunity for the two countries to find areas of agreement to guide their cooperation, a panelist said, adding that China and the United States should aim to integrate North Korea into a global system with economic growth and social provisions. But the discussant warned that differing goals may dictate opposing policies further down the line. Finally, panelists agreed that rather than blaming each other for exacerbating the North Korean issue, China and the United States should put North Korea at the core of bilateral negotiations instead of using it as a tool against each other.
Dr. Li Bin is a senior fellow working jointly in the Nuclear Policy Program and Asia Program at Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and a professor of Tsinghua University.
Zhao Tong is a fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.
Wang Yisheng is a research fellow in the Department of World Military Studies at the Academy of Military Sciences.
Paul Haenle is the director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy based at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Haenle’s research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and U.S.-China relations.