In a matter of weeks, all of China’s fears have come to a head on the Korean Peninsula. At an airport in Malaysia in mid-February, the exiled half-brother of North Korea’s ruler was assassinated with a nerve agent, reminding the world that the Hermit Kingdom is run by a paranoid and violent regime.
Closer to home, North Korea conducted two rounds of ballistic missile tests in stark violation of UN Security Council resolutions. In response, the United States, South Korea, and Japan all vowed to tighten military ties and step up pressure on Pyongyang, underscored by the initial deployment, much to China’s dismay, of a new U.S. missile defense system in South Korea.
Leaders in Beijing had reason to be nervous. An unpredictable ruler in North Korea was once again tempting war on the Peninsula, which would be disastrous for China in the form of refugees flooding across its border and loose nukes on its doorstep. In addition to the immediate crisis, a collapsing North Korea would likely result in a unified country led by a U.S.-friendly government in Seoul, removing China’s strategic buffer that keeps the United States and its South Korean ally at a more comfortable distance. At the end of the day, Beijing isn’t happy with Pyongyang’s saber rattling, but trying to manage a nuclear North Korea remains preferable to rolling the dice with instability.
Under the rubric of a “double suspension,” China recommended that North Korea halt its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for the United States and South Korea cancelling major military exercises.
First, particularly given North Korea’s record of evasion and deceit, any reasonable suspension would require an extraordinarily invasive verification regime, well beyond what even the most sympathetic observers believe Pyongyang would stomach. If you can’t verify, the deal isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.
Second, U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises are not just symbolic shows of force. They are necessary to ensure that the United States and its allies are prepared for what would assuredly be a nasty war. Pentagon officials are quick to warn against putting the reduction of military readiness on the table, much less as an opening gambit.
Finally, and this is the kicker, it’s bad strategy to agree to a mutual suspension at this particular moment—even if you think negotiations are the only viable path to stabilizing the Peninsula. Instead, as the dust settles around South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, the United States should continue working with allies and partners, as well as China, to implement fully the two UN Security Resolutions secured by the 44th administration last year.
These provide unprecedented sources of financial and diplomatic pressure on North Korea, including strict limits on the export of raw materials and access to global financial markets. If faithfully enforced, North Korea’s hard currency could be cut by upwards of $800 million, slowing its ability to fund its weapons programs while creating potential antibodies to Kim Jong-un’s rule. Several elements of the new sanctions package have never been tried and were only put into place in recent months, meaning skeptics will have to hold their breath before assessing the true effectiveness of the pressure campaign—it is simply not the case that this is old wine in new bottles.
All this is to say that diving into negotiations now would be throwing away a key source of leverage over North Korea. It would also take the pressure off of China prematurely, just when newfound U.S. resolve is driving Beijing to finally step up its game in constraining North Korea’s economy. Why start bargaining when you’re on the cusp of dramatically strengthening your hand? Instead, the United States can create more favorable conditions for successful negotiations by first demonstrating seriousness of purpose to Beijing and imposing novel costs on Pyongyang.
Only after the new sanctions regime is fully implemented will the time be ripe to consider mutual concessions.