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Why is the U.S. Pushing China to Curb North Korea?

The American government has been increasing the pressure on China to take greater action against North Korea’s missile test launches. North Korea has been in the process of developing and testing nuclear weapons for the past 14 years or so. This article aims to shed some light on the historical precedence for actions between the U.S., China, and North Korea today. Since 2016 many missile launches and tests have been conducted with various results. Despite condemnation from many nations, the volume and impact of the tests does not appear to be abating. The missile launches have gotten to such a volume that even the United Nations Security Council decided to increase targeted sanctions on North Korea. This decision to levy sanctions was only recently agreed upon by both the U.S. and China, who have disagreed on sanctions in the past. As they persist with nuclear development, North Korea has vowed to make a missile that has the ability to reach U.S. soil. A recent test of the Pukguksong-2 ground-to-ground missile using solid fuel was a success and has led Kim Jong-un to order a mass production of the system. This development is quite pertinent as solid fuel missiles are harder to detect, because they can be quickly transported and launched without needing to fuel them at a specific, identifiable location. While this recent missile does not yet have the projected ability to reach Guam (the closest U.S. territory), this test still gives North Korea valuable information about nuclear weapons that will help further develop its technology. As shown in the graphic below, all of North Korea’s previously tested missiles have ranges that would not be able to reach any land that the United States occupies. This figure also gives predictions for North Korea’s nuclear weapons that are still in development or untested, and those and projected to have a much greater range. 

While North Korea’s missile launches have been escalating in scale for the past year, it is now an even higher priority for important members in the U.S. government, with an increased number of visits to the region in the hopes of curbing North Korea‘s plans. While there seems to be some current reasons for China’s involvement, there are a number of previous events that have culminated in the Unites States looking to China for help as the main influencer on North Korea. Currently, both China and the U.S. want the Korean Peninsula to be free of nuclear weapons. At the moment there is no official dialogue between the U.S. and South Korea, and China has very little dialogue with the DPRK, if any. The current lack of dialogue between the U.S. and South Korea is significant as they are historical allies who typically are communicating and sharing strategies with each other. China also has a large stake in the region and would benefit from maintaining relations, economically speaking. China as of right now “accounts for about 90% of North Korea’s trade”, but North Korea’s growing ties with Russia could change that figure. 

Image Credit: Free Malaysia Today

Since the United States (along with many other countries from the UN) first defended South Korea when foreign troops invaded, the relationship has been rather rocky. The two countries currently have no diplomatic relations, and the historic embargos and current sanctions show that the countries do not plan on forming an alliance soon. With the recent passing of Otto Warmbier, who was flown home comatose from a North Korean jail on “humanitarian grounds”, public and political opinion of North Korea has sunk even lower. Trump has condemned North Korea for this treatment and described the regime as “brutal”. Three U.S. citizens and six South Koreans are still being held by the DPRK.

Previously in early May, Donald Trump expressed a desire to meet with Kim Jong-un if North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear and missile plan. While the U.S. would agree to a security program if the current plan was scrapped, without this firmly in place the legitimacy of the DPRK would be called into question. While North Korea appeared to desire further bilateral relations, the likelihood of accepting any proposals from the U.S. has dropped due to increasing tensions. Aside from the United States’  4,018 active and inactive nuclear warheads, they currently have no other bargaining power or sway with North Korea. The U.S. cannot seem to control North Korea on its own. In looking to other nations, a close and powerful country with economic might comes to mind—China. But why would the United States push China so hard if they don’t currently engage in meaningful dialogue with the DPRK? China holds some economic power and influence over North Korea, as previously referenced regarding trade. But China’s influence also extends beyond the purely economic sphere. China has spent a recent period of its long history in various types of involvements and agreements with North Korea. (Further information on a more extensive timeline, the source for the following events, and more information on the U.S.-South Korea alliance can be found here and here.)

As nation separate from South Korea, North Korea (breaking away as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) was only established as recently as 1948, and the PRC (People’s Republic of China) was established the following year. After the Korean war, China provided aid to North Korea, and both countries signed a treaty to promote cooperation between the two nations. But, in 2003 North Korea withdrew from a different international agreement called the NPT, which was designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and conducted their first nuclear test later on that year. In 2009 China and North Korea declared a “year of friendship”, which was meant to promote more mutual peace and cooperation. However, in 2013 China very intensely condemned North Korea’s increase of nuclear tests, and has been fairly critical since in both social media and on official terms.

In 2016, Premier Li Keqiang and former President Obama met to discuss the impending threat of North Korea as well as South Korea’s planned deployment of 6 US Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to counteract its northern neighbors. While both countries did not want North Korea to increase its nuclear power, China also did not want THAAD to be installed in South Korea because of the potential to also surveil China’s actions. During this time China also “placed Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Company, on the border with North Korea, under investigation for ‘serious economic crimes in trade activities'” between the company and North Korea. This further signified China’s displeasure with the nation’s recent actions and serves as a warning of further action. The completed THAAD is not in its operational stages, but two launchers have already been recently installed in South Korea and are live. South Korea will not yet allow the undeployed four launchers to be installed until further notice. South Korean companies, Lotte in particular, have been punished by China following the decision to allow THAAD in South Korea in the first place, on the grounds that it could represent a security threat to China. It appears that this is a concession to China rather than a rebuff of America, and an increased effort to make sure that THAAD is compliant with Korean laws.

Despite the historical precedence of cooperation and aid between the two countries, outside of acting as a political influencer and source of trade, relations between China and North Korea are on the decline. Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-Un have not actually met face-to-face because of political differences. Even though tensions are mounting, maintaining at least some semblance of relations might still be advantageous for China. Many Chinese decision-makers as well as the DPRK itself claim that North Korea acts as a buffer between China and the U.S., who are allies with South Korea. Others imply that this conflict actually benefits North Korea by allowing Kim Jong-un to “exploit tensions [between China and the United States] and build up his nuclear arsenal”. This implication seems to explain why Kim Jong-un was so upset after Xi and Trump met in Florida.

These conclusions appear to be coming into fruition after North Korea declared in May that the United States, by sending a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to Korean waters, was pushing them to nuclear war. This has prompted a response from Chinese Foreign Military spokesperson Geng Shuang, who has called on both parties “to remain calm and exercise restraint, stop irritating each other, work hard to create an atmosphere for contact and dialogue between all sides, and seek a return to the correct path of dialogue and negotiation as soon as possible”. North Korea has also expressed dissent with China for approving the expanded sanctions on North Korea.

There is a significant yet complicated historical and economic relationship between China and North Korea. Economic intervention can put China in a position to influence Kim Jong-un with regards to nuclear development, but whether this is good or bad for China it is hard to say. Attempts at Sino-DPRK allyship will potentially further strain the ties between America and China, and also deplete China’s resources. On the other hand, potentially being able to restrain North Korea could bring the U.S. and China closer together towards a common goal. The current relationship between China and the U.S. As well as the current volatile administration gives Kim Jong-un some power in that he can exploit the growing tensions for his own benefit. The increased tensions between China and North Korea could also make it harder for China to exert or even desire to exert their influence over the region. Especially after America’s partially-active THAAD launchers in South Korea and increased military presence in the area, continuing to push China has not seemed to result in largely tangible actions. Outside of the U.N. sanctions and the reprimanding of both the U.S. and North Korea for their actions, the situation remains mostly unchanged. While there is significant historical reason to seek China’s influence, current events seem to suggest that the relationship between China and North Korea, as well as China and the U.S. are becoming more strained. Despite the recent strife with North Korea over the death of Warmbier, China is still committed to “resolving the Korean Peninsula issue through dialogue and consultation”. Perhaps the invitation for Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner to Beijing later on in the year will help pave the way for further cooperation between China and America. President Trump, however, seems frustrated about China’s inability to pressure the DPRK. On his personal twitter account he recently made this statement about China and North Korea:

Perhaps this signals a change in former foreign policy, and this new administration will seek a different method of halting North Korea’s nuclear development



Gretchen Trupp is a Summer 2017 intern at The Carter Center China Program.