US, China 'Coordinating' on N Korea Policy

On Monday, President Obama met with Hu Jintao, his Chinese counterpart, in Seoul. According to Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, the two leaders agreed to “coordinate” their response to North Korea’s “potential provocation.”

And what provocation would that be? In the middle of this month, Pyongyang stated it would launch an “earth observation satellite” sometime between April 12th and 16th. Nobody, however, believes that story. The launch, apparently intended to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, will be a test of a ballistic missile, and as such will constitute a violation of Security Council resolutions and the deal, announced on February 29th, between the US and the North.

Should we be working with Beijing to stop the launch? The operating assumption of the Obama administration is that the Chinese have the ability to influence the Kim family regime, and from most indications this assessment is correct. The Chinese know they have influence and can use it at any moment, observes Chung Jae Ho, a Beijing watcher at Seoul National University.

American policymakers have also assumed that the Chinese want to stop the North’s nuclear weapons program. This belief underpinned the Bush administration’s promotion of the six-party talks and its urging of China to assume the leading role in the crucial negotiations. Yet after almost nine years of discussions—the six nations first convened in August 2003 in Beijing—it is evident the Chinese do not share Washington’s objectives. After all, more often than not Beijing’s negotiators have sided with the North Koreans in this now long-running drama.

American policymakers, however, have yet to come to terms with the notion that China may actually be taking the Kim family’s side. “My suggestion to China is, is that how they communicate their concerns to North Korea should probably reflect the fact that the approach they’ve taken over the last several decades hasn’t led to a fundamental shift in North Korea’s behavior,” Obama artfully noted on Sunday, essentially raising the issue of Beijing’s allegiance.

And just to make sure the Chinese got the message, the administration drove home the point a day later. “China has expressed those concerns before and North Korea has continued on with its behavior,” Rhodes said. “Therefore, China needs to look at whether it needs to be doing more above and beyond the types of messages and warnings it’s been giving to the North Koreans.”

Actually, China needs to do nothing. The Chinese are getting most of what they want from America’s failure to stop the North’s nuclear and missile programs. They are, among other things, making Washington feel beholden to them while supporting their ally in Pyongyang. 

It is the US that has to change the landscape. And the best way to do that is to drop the polite language and publicly make the Chinese choose between the North Koreans and the international community. For far too long American administrations have signaled that they were playing a weak hand, and the Chinese have taken advantage of that. Washington needs to show Beijing policymakers who really holds the high cards.

How does Obama do that? For one thing, the US Treasury could apply strict financial sanctions—like those imposed on North Korea in 2005 by the Bush administration—on any Chinese bank involved in North Korea’s trade in nuclear weapons or missiles. 

That would qualify as the “strong response” that White House official Gary Samore promised last week. The Chinese will be livid, but if the day comes when North Korean missiles pose a direct and immediate threat to the American homeland, it will not do for the president to say he could have done more to prevent it but he didn’t want to offend the Chinese.

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