A wild two weeksIt has been a very wild ride over the last two weeks for those watching North Korea: missile tests, presidential tweets, the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, and all under the shadow of the Constitutional Court’s ongoing consideration of President Park’s fate. What have we learned?
Without question, the most significant development is China’s decision to ban coal imports for the remainder of the year. One particular detail emerged last week that gives this move particular significance. Beijing has been insisting that it was doing little more than enforcing the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 2321. That resolution established a hard cap on North Korea’s total coal exports. Given that China was the principal importer, it would have taken by my estimates about four or five months to hit that ceiling.
However, we have now learned that Chinese coal imports from North Korea actually fell in January, suggesting that the ban was not simply compliance with a UN resolution. Rather it reflected a decision to cut North Korea off from as much as $800 million or even more. For North Korea, this means as much as one-third of its merchandise exports are now targeted.
We do not know why China acted in such a forceful manner. It could have been accumulated frustration with Kim Jong-un’s brazen exploitation of China’s support. Or it could be that the Kim Jong-nam assassination was the last straw.
But what is more important was the Chinese message to the United States: that sanctions are only of any value if they are used to get back to negotiations. Are the U.S. and South Korea ready to make that step? The answer in both cases could well be “no.” In Washington, President Trump is trying to project an image of getting things done, but the administration remains wildly understaffed with respect to key positions at the National Security Council and the departments of State and Defense. The president has supposedly ordered a review of Korea policy, but do those in place have both the ear of the president and adequate expertise to forge strong policy?
This problem is related to the deeper question of who is actually running U.S. foreign policy. The visit of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to Korea and Japan generally got positive reviews, since he tacked back to strong bipartisan support for these two crucial alliances. And the president exercised some restraint following the recent missile test, limiting his remarks to reiterating support for Japan (but not for South Korea, which is of course more immediately under threat).
But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has not been a forceful presence, and the president has the power to make news through his irrepressible Twitter account and off-the-cuff remarks. The president revealed in an interview last week how frustrated and angry he was with North Korea and suggested that it was “late in the process” to get North Korea to denuclearize. Could Trump be considering disruptive moves that would increase risk on the peninsula?
The central problem is well known: the chances that North Korea will denuclearize or even slow its weapons program is small. But if that chance exists, it will take incredibly focused and nuanced diplomacy. No one believes the president is in a position to do that.
The situation in Seoul does not help. The prospect of a more liberal president emerging from the next election might have positive effects. It could push Trump to consider a more complex set of options that combine sanctions and pressure with the engagement that China so clearly seeks. But it also sets up the possibility of the kinds of tensions visible under Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun with George W. Bush, with Washington pulling one direction and Seoul in another.
If Kim Jong-un is feeling cornered by the coal ban, we know how he will respond. Missile and nuclear tests can generate the kind of tension that will induce caution in Beijing. If there is serious instability in the neighborhood, will Xi Jinping hold to the coal ban?
One simple proposal might create momentum without requiring the detail that will ultimately be needed to move forward. The Trump administration should designate a high-level envoy on North Korean policy and send that envoy to the region to discuss options with South Korea, China and Japan. Trilateral dialogue among the U.S., South Korea and China, or five-party talks, will also help. These ideas will at least assure that someone is focused full time on this issue.
*The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog.
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