NEW YORK – The emerging Sino-U.S. coalition, albeit ad hoc and tactical at best, seems to be working in keeping the tense situation on the Korean Peninsula from further escalating, at least for now. Kim Jong Un let North Korea’s two important anniversaries in April pass without conducting yet another underground nuclear test or test-firing an intercontinental ballistic missile that Pyongyang claims is in the final stage of development.
The coalition was formed at the first summit meeting between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping held in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, on April 6, during which the two leaders apparently shared the recognition that Kim’s dangerous pursuit of nuclear weapons must be stopped. A nuclear North Korea armed with ICBM technologies capable of hitting the U.S. mainland is a matter of national security for Washington. The emergence of a defiant nuclear neighbor is also a threat to China, which has consistently supported denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. In short, Trump and Xi saw a conversion of their security interests to form a coalition and work together to prevent North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program.
At their meeting, Trump asked the Chinese president to do more to rein in North Korea, adding that the U.S. was prepared to act alone if China did not. Trump made the request while disclosing to his guest that he had just ordered an attack against a Syrian air base with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian authorities two days earlier. In response, Xi agreed but at the same time, stressed the need to resolve the North Korean issue through dialogue and negotiations, not by force as Trump had indicated.
As the two leaders met at Trump’s private retreat, speculations were rife that Kim might conduct yet another underground nuclear test, the sixth since 2006, or test-fire an ICBM to mark the 105th anniversary of the birth of his grandfather Kim Il Sung on April 15 and the 85th anniversary of the country’s Army Day on April 25. The two anniversaries were observed with a military parade and a large-scale artillery drill, respectively, but without a nuclear test or an ICBM launching, which the Trump administration had warned could trigger the U.S. military intervention. North Korea, however, last weekend successfully test-fired a new intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which it claims can deliver a nuclear warhead.
China has been, and still is, Pyongyang’s major ally since the Korean War more than six decades ago, during which it fought for the North against South Korea and the U.N. force led by the U.S. Chinese leader Mao Zedong described the China-North Korean relations to be as close as “lips and teeth.” Since then, North Korea has been a friendly neighbor that China has protected at all costs against South Korea and its ally, the U.S. The fall of communist North Korea for a unified democratic Korea under Washington’s influence has not been an acceptable option for Beijing. While condemning North Korea’s recent nuclear tests and rocket launchings, therefore, China remained less enthusiastic about imposing strict sanctions against Pyongyang at the U.N. Security Council.
Kim Jong Un, who took over the leadership of the country after his father’s death in 2011, however, turned deaf ears to Beijing’s appeals for North Korea to return to the six-party talks, from which it walked away in 2009. Rather than engaging in dialogue, Kim continued his diplomatic brinkmanship with provocative nuclear tests and missile launchings, apparently convinced that China cannot afford to see his regime collapse. Unlike his father, who visited Beijing several times, Kim has neither visited China nor met with Xi since his assumption of power. He was also suspected to have masterminded the February murder in Kuala Lumpur of his half-brother Kim Jong Nam, who had reportedly lived in Macao under Chinese protection.
Against this background and as a result of the U.S.-China summit meeting, China accelerated its pressure against North Korea and indicated its readiness to support even tighter U.N. Security Council sanctions if Pyongyang went ahead with another nuclear test or a test-firing of an ICBM. In a rare move, North Korea responded with harsh criticism of China for having made “reckless remarks” about its nuclear program. North Korea’s coal export allowed under the U.N. sanctions regime reached only 6,300 tons in March, a sharp reduction from 1.23 million tons in February, when China suspended its import of coal from North Korea. Kim’s regime could be pushed to the brink of economic collapse if China imposed additional sanctions, including reduction in the supply of crude oil.
In a bid to push a diplomatic solution of the North Korean issue, at a recent ministerial level meeting of the Security Council, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed what he called “suspension-for-suspension” deal, which advocates the suspension of North Korea’s nuclear development program, reciprocated by the suspension of a large-scale military drill by the U.S. and South Korea, to help de-escalate the tension on the peninsula and to lay a foundation for a negotiated settlement of the ongoing crisis.
While not ruling out the use of force as demonstrated by the recent deployment of a nuclear aircraft career strike force led by the USS Carl Vinson to the waters off North Korea and a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense(THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea, the Trump administration has also emphasized that its goal was to “bring Kim to his senses, and not to his knees,” an indication that Washington was not seeking a regime change as long as North Korea accepts non-nuclear status. Trump himself said recently that he was prepared to meet with Kim “under the right circumstances.” The election earlier this month of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who advocates detente with Pyongyang, will likely provide further momentum for the efforts among the parties concerned to seek a negotiated solution for the crisis.
Whether the emerging Sino-U.S. coalition will succeed in halting Kim’s nuclear weapons development program remains to be seen, as the ball is in North Korea’s court. Unless North Korea conducts another nuclear test or test-fires an ICBM, however, the coordinated efforts by the U.S. and China offers the best bet to secure peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and allow the two Koreas to coexist.
A former United Nations official, Hitoki Den is a commentator based in New York. He is the author of “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”) and many articles on U.N. and Asian issues.