How likely are strong US-North Korea relations against China? Will the U.S. play its trump card on North Korea to isolate Beijing?
After a 7-day rollercoaster of threats and saber-rattling, tensions between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have come to a climax. With the U.S. President on Wednesday praising his counterpart for a “wise” decision not to fire missiles on the U.S. territory of Guam, could the U.S. abandon its anti-North rhetoric and get the Kim regime under its wing to isolate China?
As cracks deepen in the decades-old friendship between Pyongyang and its chief sponsor state, China, the U.S. may have found an antidote to Beijing’s expanding economic and political footprint in Asia.
As North Korea’s negotiating track record shows its reluctance to cooperate with the international community under the pressure of mounting economic sanctions, could the Trump administration start a dialogue with the Kim regime to offer it economic and security benefits in exchange for denuclearization and abandoning China’s on-again, off-again partnership?
Why It’s a Golden Opportunity for Trump to Steal Kim from China
Kim, who has never been a big fan of China since assuming post of North’s supreme leader after the death of his China-favorable father, Kim Jong-il, has vacuumed up global headlines when he threatened to strike the U.S. territory of Guam in response to Trump’s threats to unleash “fire and fury” on the rogue state last week.
However, earlier this week, tensions between Washington and Pyongyang have eased, with the Kim regime backpedalling on its plans to attack the Pacific island. Now that the tensions have diminished, could Trump turn the ‘let’s-wreck-North-Korea’ train around and move it in the opposite direction toward a productive dialogue?
So far, the Trump administration has been using the same old tactic: economic and diplomatic pressure in combination with seeking China’s help to influence its major trade partner. China’s efforts to become the middleman in US-North Korea relations have had little to no effect, with Beijing remaining rather distanced from the Guam crisis last week.
Two decades of U.S. strong-arming Pyongyang have had no impact on North’s ever-growing nuclear program, while Beijing is losing the remnants of its political influence over the rogue regime. Relations between the two Asian nations have reached their lowest in the aftermath of China putting more economic pressure on the nuclear-armed neighbor and banning iron, lead and coal imports from North as part of a new round of United Nations sanctions imposed for the Kim regime’s launching of a rocket capable of reaching the mainland U.S. last month.
Can Trump Peel North Korea Away From China?
However, the mounting economic pressure on North Korea have only pushed it deeper into advancing and expanding its missile development and nuclear programs. The strong-arming, no-dialogue and no-concession approach to resolving the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula has only further emboldened the Kim regime.
Does the Trump administration have a trump card up its sleeve to bring North Korea into its sphere of influence to dismantle Pyongyang’s missile program and shrink China’s influence in the region, something both North and the U.S. are equally concerned about?
While strong US-North Korea relations are unlikely at this point, the Trump administration has a unique opportunity to approach the rogue state with a different tactic now that the tensions have subsided and now that China-North partnership is standing on thin ice.
Despite their close ties from the Korean War through the day Kim assumed office in 2011, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have remained cold during Kim’s rule. In fact, the North Korean supreme leader and Chinese President Xi Jinping have never met as leaders in over five years.
How Likely are Strong US-North Korea Relations to Isolate China?
As China continues walking a diplomatic tightrope with the economic pressure on North Korea, this might be the unprecedented opportunity for the Trump administration to approach the Kim regime with a better deal that would peel the pariah state away from China.
US-North Korea relations could evolve from tense to cooperative in an instant the second the Trump administration offers Pyongyang a package of economic benefits, security assurances and larger legitimacy. In fact, North Korea would likely see it as a better alternative to its current strained relations with China. “We’ve tried to work with China on North Korea for 20 years,” Joshua Eisenman, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, told the Washington Post. “At some point we have to accept the failure of that policy and adopt a new approach.”
The idea of having a productive dialogue with North Korea has already taken its root in the White House. Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during his trip to Manila that he would like Pyongyang to join the international community so that it would “feel secure and prosper economically.”
In fact, The Associated Press learned last week that the Trump administration engaged in back channel diplomacy with North Korea for several months despite the rising tensions that reached their peak last week. Does this pave the way for warmer US-North Korea relations? Not necessarily.
China ‘Fears’ Losing North to US
So far, the U.S. has limited its dialogues with North Korea to only the things the U.S. government wants while not discussing what the Kim regime wants. Pyongyang’s imprisonment of three Americans as well as its growing missile program have been on every agenda of US-North talks, without broadening the discussions to appeal to the Asian nation’s interests.
With the ever-increasing economic pressure on Pyongyang, Washington has not developed trust to open the door for productive discussions between the Trump administration and the Kim regime. Stealing North Korea away from China could be beneficial for both Washington and Pyongyang, experts argue.
In fact, China has two “fears” about the Korean peninsula: an armed conflict and losing North Korea to the U.S., according to Eisenman. “At the very least, we should be expanding the list of items on the agenda and not limiting it to the nuclear issue.”
Only time will tell if the Guam crisis has paved the way for better US-North Korea relations.