June 11, 2018
When US President Donald J. Trump meets North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12 it will be due in large part to the close cooperation between the United States and China over the past year.

Sino-US cooperation is critical to resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis. Since Trump took office in 2017, the United States and China have narrowed their differences on the issue and have refined their respective approaches to reaching an end goal.

For North Korea, the quest for a nuclear weapon is a strategic one. Beijing and Washington agree on the end goal of denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula and feel a sense of urgency to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. However, although both the United States and China agree that North Korea should denuclearize, they do not share the same perception of the scope of the issue and the best approach to resolve it.

In Beijing’s view, North Korea and the United States must share responsibility for the current state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula. The United States, on the other hand, believes that North Korea should take full responsibility for the current situation. Some influential figures in Washington even argue that China bears responsibility for failing to rein in North Korea.

As a consequence, the United States and China have differing approaches to resolving the issue. China wants the United States and North Korea to hold direct and sincere dialogue aimed at diminishing their misunderstandings and discussing concessions with an aim to meet each other’s legitimate demands. To this end, China has proposed the “freeze-for-freeze” initiative and the “dual-track” approaches.

Under the “freeze-for-freeze” proposal, the United States would agree to suspend military exercises on the Korean Peninsula and refrain from imposing any new sanctions on North Korea in exchange for North Korea freezing its nuclear and missile tests. Washington has reacted coolly to this initiative. Some US experts have even called for sanctions on Chinese companies and individuals with business contacts in North Korea. This could jeopardize China’s willingness to cooperate with the United States on resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.

The United States and China have recently managed to more closely align their interests on this issue. During the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February, the United States agreed to suspend military drills with South Korea and North Korea agreed to halt its nuclear and missile tests. This helped all countries involved build basic trust. A subsequent US decision to engage in direct dialogue with North Korea is also consistent with China’s preferred approach. Meanwhile, China has worked with the United States to put pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear activity, even though there was an economic cost to Chinese industries, companies, and individuals with connections to North Korea.
 
Kim Jong-un’s visits to Beijing
 
Kim’s visits to China earlier this year are key to stability of the Korean Peninsula and to the success of his summit with Trump.

China and North Korea share a special relationship. First, North Korea’s economy is heavily reliant on Chinese support. Second, many Chinese have a soft spot for North Korea due to China’s involvement in the Korean War in which 180,000 Chinese soldiers were killed and 380,000 injured. Third, as a result of South Korea’s rapid growth and alliance with the United States, the power structure on the Korean Peninsula is imbalanced. Good relations between China and North Korea help reshape this power structure. Fourth, North Korea and China are both under huge strategic pressure because of the US-South Korea military alliance.

North Korea’s nuclear ambition is the one key sticking point in its relationship with China. Beijing has sought to discourage Kim from pursuing nuclear weapons.

With his visits to Beijing, Kim sought to secure China’s support ahead of his meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump, and to prepare for threats to his regime’s survival should the latter summit fail. From China’s perspective, Kim’s visits were important because he publicly committed to denuclearization—a Chinese precondition for his visit to Beijing.  

The key to resolving the North Korea nuclear issue is to offer security guarantees to North Korea in exchange for Pyongyang’s agreement to transfer its nuclear assets to a third party. Given the low degree of trust between North Korea and the United States, any such guarantee must be multilateral and include China. Furthermore, China can play a critical role in pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear assets.

The future of China’s relationship with North Korea is uncertain. First, there may be ups and downs in North Korea’s denuclearization process. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China is obliged to continue to impose sanctions on North Korea until full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is achieved. This may anger North Korea. Second, Sino-North Korean relations are also easily affected by external factors such as China’s relationships with the United States and South Korea, which are also facing uncertainty.

Narrowing differences

As mentioned earlier, close cooperation between the United States and China over the past year has been a significant driving force behind North Korea’s decision to engage in a diplomatic process.

Beijing and Washington should seek to further narrow their differences and enhance cooperation in order to capitalize on this opportunity. Without collaboration between the United States and China, the prospects of the Trump-Kim summit setting the stage for the resolution of the North Korea nuclear issue would be dim.

The United States and China can take a number of steps to narrow their differences.

First, they should speak in one voice. The United States needs to be cautious about pursuing secondary sanctions on entities and individuals that do business in North Korea. China and the United States have differences of opinion on this issue which are best resolved in private.

Second, the United States must have a serious conversation with China about shared security concerns. China’s biggest worry is uncertainty over US policy.

Third, the United States and China should work toward a solution to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula that ultimately includes both North and South Korea, Russia, and Japan. The international community must aim for a grand bargain rather than an incremental solution, and must implement this solution step by step.

The United States should send a special envoy to Beijing as well as to other capitals in the region, following the example set by China when it hosted the six-party talks from 2003 to 2009—a multilateral effort aimed at resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. By doing so, the United States and China could present a united front on an issue that is of critical importance not just to the region but to the world.

Wang Junsheng is an associate professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ National Institute of International Strategy. He was a visiting senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security from 2017 until April 2018.

RELATED CONTENT