President Trump has had more Chinese cooperation on North Korea sanctions than any of his predecessors, but Washington still needs to clearly explain to Beijing why it would be in China’s strategic interests to do significantly more, a Chinese foreign policy expert told NK News on Saturday.
In an interview with NK News at the Halifax International Security Forum, the Stimson Center’s Senior Associate Yun Sun said that although Chinese pressure had not prevented North Korean provocations in 2017, there is currently a notable level of cooperation between the U.S. and Beijing.
“I think in terms of the level, depth and the excessiveness of sanctions that China has adopted since the inauguration of the Trump administration, Trump has got more cooperation out of China than any of his predecessors,” Yun said.
But getting China to do much more will be difficult for the U.S. until the “fundamental question about the future of the Korean peninsula is answered,” Yun added.
“Doing all these things to push the North Korean government to the brink of collapse is in the U.S. interest, but how is that in China’s interest? That’s the fundamental Chinese question…”
Yun also discussed the oscillation of contemporary PRC views of DPRK, the future of the Chinese-North Korea mutual defense treaty, the role of unofficial Chinese sanctions on the North, and risks of conflict on the peninsula.
This interview has been edited for clarity and consistency with NK News’s style guide
NK News: We often hear from the U.S. side that ‘China should do more’ when it comes to North Korea. What do you think it would take for the Chinese to do some of the things that the U.S. really wants, like a crude oil complete embargo, or wiping out a significant portion of trade between the two countries?
Yun Sun: In making any decision, there are two factors; one is to ask ‘Can you make that decision, can you implement that decision?’ The second one is about willingness – ‘Do we have the willingness, do we have the interest in pursuing that decision?’
The case we are discussing here – that China should do more on North Korea – well I think China has that capacity, but China does not necessarily share the same level of interest. Yes, of course, doing all these things to push the North Korean government to the brink of collapse is in the U.S. interest, but how is that in China’s interest? That’s the fundamental Chinese question; ‘We know that you want us to believe that we should do more, and we could do more, but why would we?’
When the U.S. and China have this conversation, this is the question that the Chinese are looking answers for: ‘Tell us why we should do this against our perceived national interests?’
I think a lot of attention and resources have been spent by the U.S. side on convincing China that they should do this or that, but I think to really push China to do more, they need more convincing as to why this is, in the long run, it is in China’s strategic interests on the peninsula. And that requires a deeper conversation.
“Doing all these things to push the North Korean government to the brink of collapse is in the U.S. interest, but how is that in China’s interest?”
NK News: What do you think is behind Chinese unofficial sanctions on North Korea, especially the recent ban on PRC tourism to Pyongyang and Air China flight schedule suspensions earlier in the year?
Yun Sun: I think on a tactical level, these ‘unofficial sanctions’ as you just referred to them, they all occurred within a very specific context. Like the April Air China suspension, it was in the context of the North Korean missile test – and this time the suspension of tourism in Dandong was a day before Trump’s visit to Beijing.
So I think there is a tactical maneuver on China’s part to tie these measures to what’s going on more broadly in the region than on China’s foreign policy agenda. But I think on the strategic level, the key question people ask is: ‘Have these sanctions mattered? Have they produced any concrete results regarding North Korea’s provocations?’
These questions are why a lot of people in D.C. will ask ‘What has China really done since Trump’s inauguration for the United States on North Korea?’ North Korea has not stopped any of its provocations, for example, it has conducted two ICBM tests and a nuclear test in 2017, so in that way it can be said in D.C. that China has not helped the United States at all.
But the question is when we assess China’s behavior, do we use North Korean behavior as the criteria, or do we look at the real actions/measures that the Chinese have taken? I would say that maybe China has not changed North Korea’s provocations, but at the same time, I think in terms of the level, depth and the excessiveness of sanctions that China has adopted since the inauguration of the Trump administration, Trump has got more cooperation out of China than any of his predecessors.
So, yes, China has not successfully changed North Korea’s behavior, but China is doing more. I agree it is not enough and I don’t think it will be enough until the fundamental question about the future of the Korean peninsula is answered. But that’s where we are. I think for China to change its decisions, change its calculation, we need to change the cost-benefit analysis.
“Trump has got more cooperation out of China than any of his predecessors”
NK News: Based on your experience in policy-circles in Washington, do you judge Americans think that Kim Jong Un has any right to rule North Korea?
Yun Sun: I don’t think so. I don’t think there is any conviction that the North Korean regime has legitimacy.
When we look at the description of the human rights violations in North Korea and the nuclear provocation and threats that North Korea has created for regional peace and stability, fundamentally, I don’t think that the United States believes that the North Korean government has the right to rule the country.
NK News: So when Washington talks about denuclearization, what do you think that really means from an honest U.S. perspective?
Yun Sun: I think honestly, like General Hyten was saying at the Halifax International Security Forum, ‘Can we live with a nuclear North Korea? Yes, we can. But would we like to? We would like not to.’
I think it also depends on the U.S. cost-benefit analysis. We don’t want to see a nuclear North Korea, but if the cost to denuclearize North Korea is so prohibitively high, especially if it involves another war on the Korean peninsula, then I think that U.S. will treat denuclearization as a long-term goal and work towards that goal but not as an immediate one to be pursued through military means.
Politically, I don’t think the U.S. will ever acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear power, but I think tactically, North Korea has achieved nuclear capabilities since 2006, since the first nuclear test they had, and we have to live with it.
We can say that no we do not acknowledge them, but it does not negate the fact that they exist. So, that is, I think, a political question.
“We can say that no we do not acknowledge (North Korean nuclear weapons), but it does not negate the fact that they exist”
NK News: And how do you think things will change after North Korea says it has completed its program and the ICBM is ready to deploy?
Yun Sun: I think by that time North Korea will have achieved its deterrence – or perceived deterrence – as an ultimate safeguard for national security, as they would like to claim.
There is this interesting perception in Washington and it is a catch-22: North Korea is so close to an ICBM capability, the Holy Grail of their deterrence, and they are not going to stop until they achieve that goal, which means that if we believe that they are trying to achieve deterrence, then their ICBM is not aimed at launching an offensive attack on the continental United States. But they want to have that retaliation capability.
But then the problem with that is they are not going to negotiate until they have it, but for them to have it they have to keep testing and they will have to keep provoking.
We are at the stage that I believe North Korea eventually wants to negotiate, after they achieve that capability, but before they can achieve that capability, they need to go through a period of intensive provocation to get that capability.
I think people do support diplomacy in the government and in the policy community and people do support a negotiated potential freeze or maybe a political solution that will eventually lead to the denuclearization of North Korea, but coming to today, precisely because North Korea is developing that ICBM capability and they are determined not to give up, that is the most destabilizing factor.
NK News: How worried are you about a conflict resulting from that?
Yun Sun: I think we are going to see a lot of harsh exchanges of rhetoric between the U.S. and North Korea like we did earlier this year, and I think it will make the region very nervous about an inadvertent war.
Not because the North Koreans will deliberately target South Korea, Japan or other countries in the region with their tests, but because of technical mistakes or because of miscalculation or because of misinformation.
I don’t think people are expecting a deliberate war, but I think we are all worried about an unintentional war that starts from some technical failure or resulting skirmishes.
And in that sense, I think the most important conversation that needs to be had is a contingency discussion between the U.S. and China so that we know that under different scenarios, when something happens, we have a playbook, we have rules of engagement to know that the U.S. and China are not going to end up with World War III on the second day or the moment the North Koreans fails in their test or inadvertently attack one of the neighboring countries.
NK News: In terms of PRC-U.S. contingency planning, are there things taking place behind the scenes?
Yun Sun: I think that discussion has become more substantive since the beginning of this year, basically after the inauguration of the Trump administration. In the past, the Chinese position on contingency planning was ‘We have our own contingency planning, you have yours, and we’ll see you in North Korea.’
But since the beginning of this year, because Trump has actively reached out to China to talk about North Korea, to gather Chinese cooperation, since then the conversation and the tone in the Chinese policy community about contingency planning has become more tolerant and more receptive.
During his visit to Beijing in August, my understanding is that General Dunford raised the issue of the North Korea contingency because tensions were so exceedingly high that the U.S. and China needed to talk about what is going to happen if we don’t want to fight each other. I think that conversation has been initiated, but how deep it has gone, we do not know.
We know that the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. and of China are going to have the first round of dialogue in Washington this November, so we hope that this probably will be one of the issues that they will discuss in detail.
But then it depends on whether you are a glass-half-full person or a glass-half-empty person. A glass-half-full person would say that yes this will be the first time in the U.S. and China ever engage in a contingency dialogue, but the glass-half-empty people will be criticizing such a dialogue for being about contingency.
They will say that the dialogue is about contingency and not about contingency planning. So there is no joint planning on a contingency, there is only a discussion about the contingency.
But I think it will be a good first step because if you don’t talk about the contingency, how do you talk about the planning? So I’m saying it is just a long march toward a direction that probably the two countries eventually will go to.
NK News: Overall, how would you characterize the current China-North Korea relationship?
Yun Sun: In China, there are two different definitions of this relationship. If you talk to some of the more conservatives, military hardliners, or party people, they will say that we have an alliance formed on the foundation of the tears and blood that we shed during the Korean War.
So, these folks would emphasize the alliance as fact and how China and North Korea share a long history of solidarity and friendship.
But if you talk to the foreign ministry and more liberal thinking scholars in China, they will say that China and North Korea have a normal state-to-state relationship where there is nothing abnormal or different compared to other bilateral relations.
I think that basically reflects the problem with China’s policy towards North Korea. There is a definitional issue about whether we see North Korea really as our ally, as our strategic asset, or do we see it as just another country on our periphery?
The answer determines whether we can develop a policy towards the country without an emotional interference, or whether the historic record will interfere in our decisions.
“There is a definitional issue about whether we see North Korea really as our ally”
The fact that this debate exists probably tells us that the definition is not so clear and that at various stages China will lean towards one definition more than the other. But still, I think there is a blurriness and there is a debate.
NK News: And what would you say is the stronger argument in that debate now – the alliance/history aspect, or the normal state-to-state relationship?
Yun Sun: I think since Xi Jinping assumed office the tendency in China has been moving towards treating North Korea as a normal country. And there are many factors in understanding that decision.
For example, Xi Jinping perceives a rising level of disrespect coming out of North Korea: that Pyongyang has an utter lack of respect or consideration for China’s national interests and North Korea in this sense has become more and more a strategic liability for China’s national security.
So I think those factors play into the tendency for China to consider North Korea more as a normal neighbor.
But still, even if North Korea is just another neighbor of China’s, the Chinese still have to consider what strategic benefits North Korea really offers and that goes back to the traditional problems of U.S.- China strategic competition in Northeast Asia.
And even if North Korea is not an ally and just another country in China’s neighborhood, Beijing will have a strong incentive to retain North Korea as its strategic asset against the United States.
So, yes, I think China’s relationship with North Korea has deteriorated over the last four to five years, but it has not deteriorated to the stage that China is just ready to abandon North Korea.
NK News: And what do you think it would take for China to want to end its mutual defense treaty and really treat it like a ‘normal’ country?
Yun Sun: The defense treaty was first signed in 1961 and it is automatically renewed every twenty years. The next renewal will be in 2021, so that’s three or four years later.
The two parties can negotiate to terminate that treaty, but I don’t think that’s going to happen in the next three or four years because it would require mutual consent on the termination and I don’t think North Korea will agree to that.
“Since Xi Jinping assumed office the tendency in China has been moving towards treating North Korea as a normal country”
But I think China’s anxiety when it comes to North Korea – the fundamental concern – is what I call the ‘war and conflict anxiety’. Effectively, China does not want to allow for armed conflict to occur on its periphery, on its border.
The implication of that for policy is that when North Korea pushes the envelope and provokes too much – if it pushes the Korean peninsula to the brink of a conflict – then that would change China’s calculation.
For example, there were discussions earlier this year in China about the idea North Korea had been provoking too much and, because with Trump’s new policy it seemed the likelihood of armed conflict in the Korean peninsula had become so significant, that China should take preemptive measures to take out the North Korean regime and to replace Kim Jong Un with another pro-China or neutral leader who is willing to denuclearize.
So I think the first consideration is how close we are to an armed conflict. If we are very close, China’s calculation definitely changes, but if we are not that close then China’s calculation does not really change that much.
The other anxiety China has is about the United States.
Since Trump has been approaching China for a resolution on the North Korea issue, ultimately, the Chinese question is ‘what’s going to happen after unification of the Korean peninsula,’ right?
‘You have to give us an end game, you have to tell us what is going to happen,’ the Chinese thinking goes. ‘Tell us how unification is going to be in China’s national interests’.
So what they really support is Dr. Kissinger’s proposal to have what they call a ‘grand bargain’ between the U.S. and China about the future of the Korean peninsula, with a confirmed or affirmed future that China feels it can accept and live with. With that, China can work with other parties in the region gradually towards that direction.
But currently there is no consensus about what that future looks like. So I think the primary focus of everyone’s attention and resources is to figure out what that future is, not to work towards a mutually agreed future.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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