North Korea Negotiations at Impasse, as US Hardens China Policy

November 19, 2018 Updated: November 19, 2018

WASHINGTON—The situation for U.S. foreign policy in East Asia is mixed: North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has survived America’s maximum pressure and is now looking at expanded options, while U.S. allies in Asia welcome a more aggressive U.S. policy toward China.

These were the conclusions of two Asia experts, Su Mi Terry, senior fellow and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Evan Madeiros, Penner Family chair in Asian Studies at Georgetown University, at the Defense One Summit in Washington on Nov. 15.

Terry summarized the events leading to negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear program, observing that the Trump administration had initially been successful in 2017 in imposing “maximum pressure” on North Korea through sanctions, most importantly with Chinese cooperation.

However, she explained that after several rounds of meetings and summitry among Chinese leader Xi Jinping of China, and President Moon Jae-In of South Korea and President Donald Trump of the United States, North Korea had succeeded in easing sanctions pressure. She stated that laborers were “going back to China, we’ve seen more border activities, trade has picked up” due to China’s easing of sanctions.

A Russian worker stands before a fence at the RasonConTrans coal port at Rajin Harbor, in the Rason Special Economic Zone, North Korea, on Nov. 21, 2017. A mountain of North Korean coal that would once have been bound for China is stranded by a UN ban on Pyongyang’s coal exports. (ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

Under these circumstances, Terry found prospects for achieving complete denuclearization by North Korea unrealistic. Aside from the joint “aspirational statement” of Trump and Kim in June, she said that negotiations had reached an “impasse.”

Despite its periodic threats to resume missile and other nuclear-program testing, Terry believes that “North Korea thinks that it can get a best possible deal with President Trump,” and therefore won’t relinquish its program, but also won’t resume testing or other provocative activities.

Madeiros said there had been “quite a bit of welcoming of this sort of harder line by the Trump Administration [toward China]” by U.S. allies in the region.

At the same time, the toughening U.S. policy raises questions, which Madeiros framed in the context of a China policy speech by Vice President Mike Pence on Oct. 4. He said the speech presented two questions for U.S. allies in Asia: “what are you going to ask us to do about it?” and “are you asking us to follow you…into a [sic] ideological competition with China?”

Madeiros sees a persistent U.S. military presence in the South China Sea as crucial, saying that “it’s profoundly in America’s interests both [in terms of] freedom of navigation, as well as the credibility of our alliance commitments to ensure that the South China Sea remains contested and keep the Chinese guessing, and there are plenty of strategies to do so.”

Terry and Madeiros shared similar perspectives on the current state of Chinese involvement in U.S.–North Korea denuclearization negotiations. Both credit the Trump administration with securing Chinese tightening of sanctions on North Korea in 2017, where the Obama administration had failed in similar efforts.

However, they both viewed the summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore in June and subsequent negotiations as leading China to relent on sanctions and pursue its own summits and meetings with North Korea.

Madeiros said the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign through sanctions that culminated in the Trump-Kim summit revealed China’s strategic preferences: “What they really don’t want is a North Korea that doesn’t have nuclear weapons, but leans toward the United States.”

China would tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea that was at least neutral in its diplomatic stance toward the United States and China rather than have it in the U.S. orbit. Post-summit, North Korea has the United States, China, South Korea, and Russia “chasing after it … the economic pressure is off, they’ve got a lot of different options.”

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