Writing in Foreign Affairs this week, Zhu Feng sketched out a vision of the thinking in Beijing from the perspective of a person more reasonable than Xi Jinping has been, so far. Zhu’s piece suggests the outlines of an agreement with Beijing to defang Kim Jong-Un and manage North Korea’s transition to peace. Alas, Zhu Feng is not in charge in Beijing, and Xi Jinping is. Suspend your paranoia that this essay is only an artifice to persuade us that Beijing will be reasonable, if only we stay our hands on secondary sanctions another year or two (years we no longer have). The piece is well worth reading in its entirety, if only for what it tells us about the thoughts of those in Beijing whose influence we should seek to weaken or strengthen, and whose fears we should seek to exploit.
In this regard, Trump needs to understand the complexity of China’s thinking on North Korean policy. Getting China to take more responsibility on North Korea requires both a gentle and a hard push. The Trump administration has made it clear that it will not tolerate a nuclear North Korea—but Beijing has heard this before. Despite the rhetorical flourish, to the experienced Chinese diplomat, the Trump administration’s policy sounds quite a lot like those of Presidents George W. Bush and Obama: a desire to achieve denuclearization but an unwillingness for this to come at the cost of war on the peninsula. Chinese President Xi Jinping is similarly bound by the strategic logic of China’s long-standing approach to its petulant neighbor—avoiding the dangers and uncertainty of war and instability by looking past the present consequences of North Korea’s actions. Xi’s view of North Korea is still dominated by the fear of a reunified Korea under Seoul, which may want U.S. forces to remain in the country. This is a legitimate concern, but it is possible, given Trump’s isolationist stance, that he might consider not stationing U.S. troops above the 38th parallel or deploying offensive capabilities to a unified Korea. [Zhu Feng, Foreign Affairs]
I can envision how an agreement with Beijing might work: China would enforce the U.N. Security Council resolutions — no more and no less. It would import no more than $400 million worth of coal, and it would not buy coal or anything else from any entities designated by the U.N., that were associated with Pyongyang’s weapons programs, or that were reasonably suspected of contributing to those programs. It would freeze the assets of North Korea’s proliferators and their front companies and put their agents on the first Air Koryo flight home. It would also freeze any accounts of North Korean nationals or trading companies until it ensured, in accordance with UNSCR 1718, paragraph 8(d), that those funds could not be used for WMD programs or other prohibited purposes. For good measure, it would also expel any North Korean workers. It would keep those measures in place until Pyongyang was fully disarmed. That, in turn, would almost certainly require the removal of Kim Jong-Un, but coordinated economic strangulation of the regime — which should carefully avoid impeding the trade in food — would likely cause the elites to lose confidence in him. By many accounts, that confidence is already shaky.
In return, the U.S. would agree not to station forces inside the borders of what is now North Korea (something that we should not do under any circumstances anyway). We might even discuss a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. ground forces, which would no longer be needed in Korea. We would agree to suspend sanctions, year by year, provided Pyongyang was making progress toward the conditions described in our laws, toward a more humane and open society whose disarmament we could actually believe in. This state would be neither a militarized totalitarian cult nor a Jeffersonian democracy, but a state that was evolving from totalitarianism to one that was merely authoritarian, along the lines of what we see in Burma today. Great change takes time. North Korea and its people would need time to evolve into a self-governable society, ready to take its place in the world.
Once North Korea was disarmed and the artillery was removed from the bunkers along the DMZ, Korea could be reunified in all but name. Korean families would be reunited, a new pan-Korean culture would be reborn, and commerce would flow freely across the nature reserve formerly known as the DMZ. An agreement with Beijing and Seoul might preserve a fig leaf of separation for an agreeable transitional period, excluding any foreign forces and ensuring friendly relations with all of Korea’s neighbors, friends, and trading partners, to assuage Beijing’s security and economic concerns. South Korea would assume responsibility for controlling the China-North Korea border and caring for the poor and dispossessed North Koreans who might otherwise cross it. The consequent economic revitalization, including access to refurbished North Korean seaports, would be a boon to China’s northeastern rust belt. The political status of North Korea after this transitional period — say, ten years — would be for the people of both Koreas to decide. Enough of foreign powers drawing lines through a nation that ought to be able to decide its own fate. A unified Korea would be no threat to China.
Of course, if Beijing does not cooperate, things might have to take a darker turn.
The real difference that Beijing and Washington must overcome, however, is China’s fear of chaos in North Korea spilling over its own borders. Such instability could spell an unmanageable situation involving all sorts of crises: civil war, famine, and mass displacement, not to mention the danger of fissile material and biological weapons falling into even more unstable hands. Of course, some Chinese hardliners take this view even further, suggesting that it would be foolish for China to take the North Korean burden off the back of its greatest competitor. They argue that, considering that the United States is in many ways a thorn in the flesh to Chinese interests in areas such as Taiwan and the South China Sea, it would be against China’s national interests to release the United States from this problem.
Today, many within China believe that Beijing must reevaluate its relationship with both Koreas, which essentially means abandoning Pyongyang. It is both the strategic and the moral choice. Choosing South Korea, a democracy with a strong economy, will place China on the right side of history. China’s lack of clear direction on this issue is beginning to negatively affect its reputation, with Beijing seen by the international community as reluctant to cooperate or behave responsibly. These are not traits that behoove a rising power. [Zhu Feng, Foreign Affairs]
I can also envision how things would have to work if China does not cooperate. The alternative would be China’s greatest fear — chaos. It would have to be. Pyongyang insists that its nuclear program is non-negotiable. Even assuming that, under extreme duress, Pyongyang eventually said otherwise, it will never be possible for a prudent person to believe in the denuclearization of a society as closed as North Korea’s, or to trust the words of a regime as mendacious as Pyongyang’s.
Because of all the years wasted by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, we may, for a while, be stuck with the option of trying to deter a nuclear North Korea. This option is only slightly less terrible than war, and anyone who has watched how Pyongyang has behaved in recent years knows that this isn’t sustainable. We are always laying down red lines we think Pyongyang wouldn’t dare cross. Our calculations are invariably miscalculations, and Pyongyang crosses our red lines like so many cracks in a sidewalk. Can we deter a regime that built a reactor in Syria, used VX in the middle of the crowded Kuala Lumpur Airport terminal, or uses cyber attacks to terrorize us, smother own freedom of expression, and rob banks? Can we deter a regime that has carried out multiple armed attacks, cyber attacks, and assassination attempts in South Korea since 2010, killing at least 50 people? Can we deter a regime that sells chemical weapons technology to Assad and MANPADS to terrorists? How do you deter Pyongyang once it thinks it can nuke Seoul, Tokyo and New York? Will Pyongyang become more restrained when it thinks we think it can, or might?
Eventually, Pyongyang will go too far and we will be at war. Deterrence will fail. That’s why the Trump administration is right to turn down the idea of a freeze — not that Pyongyang is interested in one anyway. Pyongyang can’t be allowed to have nukes, or even nuclear technology to sell to others. But no one believes it is possible to take these things away from Pyongyang without a fundamental change in the regime’s character.
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The cold, hard truth that too few of us are willing to confront is this — there is no peaceful solution to the North Korea crisis as long as Kim Jong-Un remains in power. The syllogism is a simple one: if Kim Jong-Un won’t disarm, and if we can’t live with Kim Jong-Un (or he won’t live with us) if he doesn’t disarm, then Kim Jong-Un must go. The question then becomes a matter of finding the least-risky option to achieve that result.
Once we conclude that Pyongyang won’t disarm under pressure, what it means for sanctions to “work” shifts. Then, the focus of sanctions also shifts, from creating economic pressure on Pyongyang to supporting political subversion of the regime by targeting its immune system — the border guards, the army, Ministry of State Security, the State Security Department, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, and the Propaganda and Agitation Department. In a country whose political and economic models are fragile and possibly unsustainable, change can take many forms. Certainly, it should not take the form of invasion or decapitation unless that’s our only protection against a grave and imminent threat to ourselves and our allies. It could mean sudden collapse if the elites turn on Kim Jong-Un, but our influence over such an event would be indirect at best. Don’t get me wrong — we should do everything within our power to prepare the Pyongyang elites for it, if only to make the right people in Pyongyang and Beijing nervous, and most urgently, to discourage North Korean troops from killing their brother and sister Koreans in the event we can’t prevent war.
The change we can do the most to catalyze, however, is a slow-motion revolution in the countryside. Our strategy should be to use sanctions and information warfare to degrade the regime’s capacity to repress, even as we use economic engagement and information warfare help an informed, enriched, and empowered people rise. This would not be regime change, exactly, but regime decline and regime replacement by dozens of local shadow governments. As the security forces lost their foreign sources of income due to sanctions, their members would desert, turn to corruption, or allow themselves to be coopted by the rising merchants and shadow warlords. Officers patrolling the markets could not shake the people down without fear of resistance or reprisal. Inside the jangmadang, they would become prisoners of the people. Inside their stations, they would be besieged, isolated, and ineffective. As the state’s power melted away and flowed back down the songbun scale, information operations would tell the elites that Kim Jong-Un’s days are numbered, that they should not support him, and that they should disobey any orders to kill their brothers and sisters. Implicit in the slow degradation of a totalitarian state is the historical inevitability that it can decline only so much before it can’t contain an explosion. That is, it must change or perish. Political change tends to happen like bankruptcy: gradually, then suddenly. Who is to say when regime decline might become the people’s revolution that Thae Yong-Ho has predicted? Beijing and Pyongyang should certainly worry about this.
For poor North Koreans, this would mean freedom of trade, freedom from fear, and freedom from the confiscation of their land and their crops. It might also mean chaos along China’s border. China would have to deploy troops to seal that border. Dandong, Dalian, and other cities involved in cross-border trade would face the concentrated effects of secondary sanctions, and even a loss of access to trade with America, that might plunge them into recession and unemployment. If the propaganda circulating in the jangmadang harnessed North Korea’s nationalism in an intensely anti-Chinese direction, it could make North Korea an unsafe place for Chinese investments for years to come. Even after reunification, Chinese goods would face steep fees for the use of North Korean ports. China would be offered no guarantees about the future disposition of U.S. forces (though we’d be smart to leave the pacification of North Korea to the Koreans). Chinese investments — particularly those found to violate U.N. sanctions — might be confiscated, or written off as odious debts. Refugees would flood across the Tumen, and Seoul and Washington would be powerless to stop that flood. To prevent Pyongyang from proliferating, we might have to impose a naval blockade, and an economic air blockade.
All of this is a much more chaotic alternative than an agreement to enforce the sanctions Beijing already voted for at the U.N. Security Council, but for us, it’s far better than the collapse of global nonproliferation or a coerced capitulation of South Korea. If Beijing is blithe about (or applauds, or encourages) our greatest security fears, then our response should be to identify and exploit its greatest fears in return.