Mutual distrust must be set aside before progress can be made on North Korea
The latest measures appear to be having an effect, with the Pyongyang calling for talks with Washington. But it will take more than trade barriers and embargoes to push Kim Jong-un’s regime towards denuclearisation
Any doubts that China is not committed to ending North Korea’s nuclear programme have been vanquished with Beijing’s enforcing of some of the toughest-yet UN sanctions against its neighbour. Reduced tolerance, public pressure and the danger posed by Pyongyang’s weapons were behind the decision. The measures appear to be having an effect, with the North calling for talks with the US. But it will take more than trade barriers and embargoes to push Kim Jong-un’s regime towards denuclearisation.
Two months of negotiations with the US led to the sanctions, under which Beijing has banned most imports of North Korea’s main exports, coal and iron ore. With China being the North’s biggest trading partner and closest ally, its cooperation was essential if the penalties were going to have an impact. But even though they are starting to bite, there is no certainty of an about-face. Decades of isolation, negotiations and pressure have failed to end Pyongyang’s sabre-rattling.
Nor can China be expected to go further. Ties with the North have worsened since Kim came to power in 2011, but there are strategic and security reasons for not letting relations dramatically worsen. Tightening trade screws even more could deepen poverty in the North or bring about a collapse of the
Kim regime, a scenario likely to cause a flood of refugees into Jilin province. It could also lead to a uniting of the Koreas, not a palatable outcome given South Korea’s military alliance with the US and a sense in Beijing that the American pivot to Asia is about encircling China.
Still, Beijing is committed to a peaceful and stable region. It brokered six-party talks and while the North pulled out of the process and has since tested four nuclear devices and long-range missiles, a multilateral platform remains the best approach. But the Chinese special envoy to Korean peninsula affairs, Wu Dawei, has found resistance to restarting the talks during trips to the US, Japan and South Korea, where diplomats want North Korea to first begin dismantling its nuclear programme. Pyongyang is similarly narrow-minded, wanting direct talks with Washington.
Kim needs to change course, but he seems more intent on shoring up his regime, the aim of a rare meeting of his Communist Party next month. China, the US, Japan and South Korea therefore need to better coordinate and find a common strategy. There will be no progress unless they can first set aside mutual distrust.