The U.S. and China have dramatically different perspectives and approaches on North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, even though both say they want the program shut down. So how to find common ground? Stephanie T. Kleine-Ahlbrandt, USIP’s director of Asia-Pacific programs, tells a congressionally established commission, “There are no good options, only a series of trade-offs.”

stephanie testifying

Kleine-Ahlbrandt testified on June 5 before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, as the two powers anticipate a possible fourth nuclear test by North Korea. She provided her analysis at the panel’s invitation to discuss China’s relations with North Korea. The panel was created by Congress in 2000 to study the trade and economic relationship between the U.S. and China and the implications for national security.

The following are Kleine-Ahlbrandt’s oral remarks, after courtesy comments, lightly edited for clarity. Her full written testimony is available here. The views expressed are her own and do not necessarily represent those of USIP, which does not take policy positions.

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United States policy towards North Korea aims at achieving verifiable steps toward denuclearization -- which China says it wants, too. The U.S. believes that the best way to accomplish this is through targeted financial measures and conditional engagement.

Beijing disagrees.  It argues that Pyongyang needs security assurances and encouragement for economic reform, and that this might produce a willingness in the long term on Pyongyang’s part to revisit its nuclear weapons program.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang’s nuclear stockpile continues to expand, missile delivery systems are being improved, the danger grows of spreading nuclear weapons technology, and the threat to U.S. allies increases.

Clearly the U.S. tactic of trying to persuade China to come over to its approach isn’t having the desired effect. The idea that China can and will compel Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons cannot be the basis of sound U.S. policy.

Following North Korea’s 3rd nuclear test [in February 2013], Western officials and analysts interpreted President Xi Jinping’s stronger emphasis on denuclearization as a sign of a policy shift and greater convergence between U.S. and Chinese national interests.

But this shift in rhetoric did not translate into any measures to press North Korea to denuclearize or in any sense change Chinese priorities on the [Korean] Peninsula.

While China does not want a nuclear North Korea, what it wants even less are scenarios such as war, the collapse of the regime, or a reunited Peninsula [that] allows a U.S. presence on [China’s] border . 

Even when Chinese analysts believe North Korea’s weapons buildup damages China’s strategic interests, they think that North Korea is simply trying to guarantee its security in the face of existential threats from the United States. In this regard, they cite examples such as Iraq, the NATO operation in Libya and now Ukraine as evidence that renunciation of weapons of mass destruction would only result in regime change.

Beijing arguably maintains an interest in the survival of the North Korean regime for its own domestic legitimacy. At a time when President Xi is working to bolster his [Chinese Communist] Party’s standing through ambitious anti-corruption measures and a bold economic reform program, the last thing he needs is the failure or collapse of a communist regime next door. And these fears are [exacerbated] by the fact that the Chinese see the fall of Myanmar to western values as a country on China’s border that is now falling into the western camp.

China sees the nuclear issue as just one component of its broader bilateral relationship with North Korea, which is based on a policy of sustaining the country to integrate it more fully into the international economy.  Chinese officials see economic engagement as part of a long-term process that will ultimately change North Korea’s strategic calculations with regard to nuclear weapons.  

To be sure, there is not much affection left between China and North Korea. 
But Chinese mistrust of the U.S. remains the primary obstacle to meaningful U.S. cooperation on the Peninsula.

When China looks at North Korea, it does so through a geopolitical strategic lens featuring U.S.-China competition at its core. Consensus amongst analysts in Beijing is that the U.S.-led bloc is using North Korea as a pretext to deepen its Asia rebalance, to strengthen regional alliances, move missile defense and military assets to the region and expand military exercises.

As a result of this mismatch [of] strategic views between the U.S. and China, the very tools being used by both sides are arguably contradictory.  

  1. Whereas Washington sees diplomatic isolation as essential, China sees diplomatic engagement and dialogue as necessary.  
  2. Where Washington sees economic sanctions as the best way to deal with the Peninsula, China sees economic cooperation and support as the best way to move forward.
  3. And finally, where the U.S sees deterrence as important, China sees security assurances as necessary.

So in this situation, what can actually be done? Well, there are no good options, only a series of trade-offs.

The basic choice for U.S. policymakers is [among]:

  • trying to change China’s perception of its self interest, which is highly unlikely;
  • applying more pressure on China in return for its [reacting] more strongly to things like any new long-range missile launches or nuclear tests -- Beijing could agree, conceivably, to some new increment of punishment after any nuclear test, ballistic missile flight-test or space launch; or
  • attempting to find a more collaborative approach that draws on China’s interest in engaging North Korea alongside continued U.S.-led multilateral pressure.

An option being debated in Washington is whether the U.S. could impose “Iran-style” sanctions on North Korea and whether the United States could at least fully implement the range of existing measures that it already has against Pyongyang and are not being fully exploited. The problem with this is [that], if we think we can pressure China to do the right things through sanctions that seriously harm China’s interests, it could easily make the breach between the U.S. and China on North Korea and other issues even worse.

There should be more pushback when China does not deliver on sanctions instead of downplaying differences, an approach that has not resulted in better cooperation from China. So for example, when the U.S. starts with a list of 40 entities to sanction and China whittles it down to three, Washington could choose to point out that gap and work with other countries to try to sanction those entities, instead of declaring victory.  

Washington could also increase criticism of China for permitting North Korea to use its airspace, land border, and waters to transfer illicit items to other countries--clearly in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.   

Another possibility would be to forge a more joint approach. If China insists on continuing with its approach of cutting back on items with military relevance, all the while deepening investments in infrastructure and resource extraction, perhaps the U.S. could accept this in return for stricter implementation of dual-use trade controls and other implementation of existing sanctions.

The United States could also expand efforts to get as much information about the outside world as possible into North Korea. This happens through multiple channels -- radio and internet, investments in internet censorship evasion technologies, transmittal of DVDs, CDs, computer thumb drives, and other means. Kim Jong-un fears this more than sanctions.

The United States should also support limited, targeted engagement with North Korea, carried out by [non-governmental organizations] and certain UN agencies. At the very least, people-to-people initiatives, including the long-delayed reciprocal visit by the national symphony of North Korea, should be encouraged rather than blocked.  Such initiatives serve the purpose of transmitting information to the North Korean people about the outside world.

Finally forging close trilateral cooperation amongst the United States, [South Korea] and Japan is absolutely essential to achieving U.S. objectives on the Korean Peninsula. Tensions between Seoul and Tokyo are undermining U.S. strategic interests in the region as Washington struggles to present a united front in dealing with a nuclear North Korea and dealing with China’s rise.

In short, much more needs to be done to facilitate cooperation and trust with and between these two vital U.S. allies.

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