The first serious foreign-policy crisis to confront U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has emerged on the Korean Peninsula. Tensions have been compounded by Pyongyang’s alleged assassination in Malaysia of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam, its firing of four short-range missiles into the ocean near Japan, the U.S. deployment to South Korea of a missile defense system strongly opposed by Beijing, and most recently the impeachment and removal from office of South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
These destabilizing events are occurring as North Korea steadily moves toward the deployment of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles capable of striking not only South Korea and Japan but also U.S. territory. This eventuality has been deemed “unacceptable” by countless observers, including Trump, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised the possibility of U.S. “preemptive action” against Pyongyang during a recent trip to Asia. Yet despite such apparent resolve, Washington, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, and at times Moscow have thus far been entirely unsuccessful in their multi-decade efforts to entice, threaten, or cajole Pyongyang into abandoning its nuclear weapons program.
Rather than retread past failures, it’s time for the United States and China to cooperate in starting over. Both sides have to recognize the reality, if not the legitimacy, of each other’s fears about North Korea and make concessions that indicate their good faith in eventually moving toward a peaceful, unified peninsula acceptable to both sides — that is to say, a Korean Peninsula that is united and largely non-aligned (i.e. without foreign forces). This would risk alienating South Korea and Japan, but it’s the only way to clear the path for China to exert its full influence against its neighbor, forcing Pyongyang to confront a true choice between extreme isolation and likely collapse on one hand and assured security, albeit absent any nuclear arsenal, on the other.
One major thing preventing China and the United States from presenting such a clear choice to North Korea is lingering but unnecessary contradictions in their strategic calculations. The Chinese leadership is deeply suspicious of Washington’s ultimate objectives and sees North Korea as an essential buffer against a future unified peninsula with U.S. forces deployed along China’s border. This is deeply reminiscent of the unacceptable situation confronting Beijing before its entrance into the Korean War in 1950. The United States, in turn, believes that Beijing will never place denuclearization of the peninsula above potential instability and hence will tolerate a nuclear-armed Pyongyang, if the alternative were a unified peninsula under U.S. influence.
Any negotiation between Beijing and Washington about Pyongyang should thus involve an open discussion about a unified Korea that would be amenable to both sides.
The concept of such a “future Korea” dialogue is unlikely to be floated in the Korea policy review the Trump administration is reportedly undertaking. Most of the ideas publicly discussed by various Trump supporters are revised versions of past practices, including more sanctions, more enticements, or some combination of the two. Those few new ideas that have been floated include more concerted U.S. threats or enticements directed at Beijing in an effort to get it to “solve” the problem by pressuring Pyongyang and preemptive strikes on Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities. But the former is unlikely to earn China’s consent, and the latter might precipitate a full-blown war on the peninsula. Tillerson’s remarks while in Asia, including a declaration that former President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” had ended, suggest that such dangerous options are now more actively under consideration.
If both sides want to avoid the terrifying risks these options would entail, they need to agree to serious compromises. On the American side, this must include the possibility of a U.S. withdrawal of all combat forces from the peninsula, an end to the U.S.-South Korean command, and the indefinite suspension of all joint military exercises and deployments, including the THAAD missile defense system. Beijing, for its part, must be prepared to indefinitely suspend all economic interactions with Pyongyang, provide clear and binding security assurances to a unified Korea (including a commitment never to employ force against it in an unprovoked manner), and eventually end its military security treaty with Pyongyang.
Such components of a “future Korea” dialogue would remain initially and for some time as just dialogue, serving primarily as a means of eliminating Chinese and U.S. fears and concerns about the future status of the peninsula while creating a strong point of leverage against Pyongyang.
Both Seoul and Tokyo, already worried by the rise of Chinese power and the shakiness of security guarantees under a volatile Trump administration, will be concerned by such a dialogue. To address this, Washington and Beijing would need to credibly reassure them that they would be fully consulted during the process and that no movement toward actual unification would occur without their formal approval and involvement.
The very existence of a Sino-American dialogue on a unified Korea would doubtless place enormous pressure on Pyongyang, facing the prospect of total isolation.
However, to be effective, it must also be combined with an alternative “way out” in the form of positive incentives, as part of an incremental, quid pro quo normalization process. These could include a peace treaty, rather than the long-standing cease-fire left over from the end of the Korean War; diplomatic recognition; the ending of all existing sanctions; economic assistance; and the partial withdrawal of U.S. forces from the peninsula. Such actions would occur only in response to drawdowns in North Korean conventional forces, the gradual opening of its economy, and the capping and eventual dismantlement of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
These incentives, along with the threat of entrance into serious talks on Korea’s future, would thus present Pyongyang with the choice of either adopting a denuclearization process with staged benefits that include virtually all of its past demands or languishing in isolation from a dialogue that, if implemented, would likely lay the foundation for its eventual demise.
The key to this approach lies primarily with China. While consistently supporting positive incentives toward North Korea, Beijing has resisted talks on Korea’s future because of a fear of Pyongyang’s reaction and its distrust of the United States. Today, however, China’s leaders might be much less concerned about upsetting Pyongyang, given their intense and growing dislike of the current North Korean leadership. Chinese President Xi Jinping has purposely avoided meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and Beijing officials and scholars barely conceal their contempt for a government that continues to reject their advice, defy U.N. resolutions, murder their North Korean supporters, and provoke Seoul and Washington into deploying the intolerable THAAD system. Moreover, and most importantly, they would almost certainly be more willing to run the risk of Pyongyang’s ire if the United States could credibly offer the possibility of a unified Korea that permanently removes the American military from Beijing’s doorstep.
The decidedly unconventional Trump administration might prove capable of providing such credibility and at the same time reassuring Tokyo and Seoul that their interests would be protected. This will require a clear, consistent Asia strategy centered on the creation of a stable region through mutually beneficial long-term arrangements among the major powers, especially regarding hot spots such as Korea. This strategy could draw significantly on Trump’s deal-making approach. But it requires the jettisoning of policymaking via impromptu tweets and a clear-headed recognition that “Making America Great Again” cannot occur on the basis of a quixotic search for permanent U.S. military and economic predominance in Asia without consideration of Chinese security needs.
While this approach would require a clarity of mind, sustained commitment, significant diplomatic (and deal-making!) skills, and some risks, the possibility of a volatile, nuclear North Korea presents far greater dangers for all parties — even Pyongyang itself.