In response to a quickening pace of nuclear and ballistic missile tests by North Korea, the U.S. and China in April vowed to cooperate to neutralize the threat from the mostly isolated nation. By June, the two were quarreling over the value of China’s efforts. The spat underscored the difficulty of finding a resolution that is agreeable to both world powers and to North Korea. Yet the urgency to do so is great as North Korea — thought to possess as many as 20 atomic warheads and led by an unpredictable despot — rushes to reach its goal of developing nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the continental U.S.
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1. What’s the quarrel about?
The timing suggested it was prompted by U.S. frustration over the death of Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old American student who traveled in 2016 on a group tour to North Korea, where he was convicted of trying to steal a propaganda poster and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Releasing him in June in a coma, North Korean officials claimed Warmbier fell into the state after suffering botulism poisoning and being given a sleeping pill. Critics of North Korea suspect he was abused by his jailers. The day after Warmbier died, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that while he greatly appreciated China’s efforts to deal with North Korea, “it has not worked out.” A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry responded that his country’s steps were “indispensable.”
2. What has China done?
Most notably, China in February suspended coal imports from North Korea after the murder in Malaysia of Kim Jong Nam, a half-brother to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un who had been living under Chinese protection. Chinese and U.S. officials collaborated to get the United Nations Security Council to expand sanctions against North Korea in June. Some analysts speculate that pressure from China persuaded North Korea to refrain from conducting a nuclear test earlier this year, although it has continued with missile launches.
3. What more does the U.S. want China to do?
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson characterized China’s cooperation on North Korea as “uneven” when he spoke to lawmakers in mid-June. He said U.S. officials were concerned about actions by both the government and other entities in China that provide revenue to North Korea. He said the U.S. had asked China to take action against a list of such entities.
4. What is China’s goal for North Korea?
China says it wants a nuclear weapon-free Korean peninsula and advocates diplomacy as the only way to achieve that goal.
5. What is China’s biggest concern?
Stability. The ruling Communist Party wants to avoid military conflict, which could bring catastrophic war, send North Korean refugees flooding over the border, loosen the party’s grip on power and bring U.S. troops to its doorstep. If North Korea collapsed and was absorbed by South Korea, the unified government would probably seek to maintain its alliance with the U.S. as ballast against the power of China next door.
6. What are China’s options now?
China is most likely to support stronger sanctions, including cutting off North Korea’s access to finance, food and fuel, although not to the point of jeopardizing Kim’s regime. The Communist Party-run Global Times has suggested restricting oil shipments to North Korea or even agreeing to a U.S.-imposed financial blockade if Kim continues to violate UN resolutions demanding that it abandon its nuclear weapons program and refrain from missile tests.
7. How much sway does China hold over North Korea?
Following a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in April, Trump said China didn’t have the “tremendous power” over North Korea that he’d imagined. Perpetually fraught ties between the allies were further strained after Kim took power following his father’s death in 2011, particularly after he executed an uncle who had served as a conduit to China. Although diplomatic exchanges between the two sides continue, neither Xi nor Kim has visited the other’s capital. At the same time, China supplies about 90 percent of North Korea’s energy and much of its food, and could lean on it to re-enter negotiations on its nuclear program.
8. How likely are talks?
Chinese officials have urged the U.S. and North Korea to make conciliatory gestures as a way to revive talks. They’ve suggested North Korea halt its nuclear activities while the U.S. suspend military drills in the area. That’s considered unlikely given the lack of trust between the two countries. Plus U.S. officials are concerned that initiating talks would be seen as rewarding North Korea’s bad behavior. But if Kim cools his provocations, then Trump might have room to put his self-proclaimed deal-making skills to the test.
9. Would a military attack on North Korea work?
The U.S. has said military options are on the table. A pre-emptive strike might succeed in taking out North Korea’s known nuclear and missile sites, but potentially at a huge cost. The country has too many facilities spread out over too much terrain to destroy simultaneously. Even if North Korea reacted only with conventional weapons, its response could be catastrophic given that South Korea’s capital, Seoul (population: 10 million) is within artillery range of the border, and a South Korean counterattack would add to the damage. Whether U.S. military capabilities — including Thaad, a U.S. missile defense system deployed in South Korea — could defend against a North Korean nuclear missile remains to be seen.
10. Is accepting North Korea’s nukes an option?
Some analysts have suggested that the best way to deal with North Korea is to accept that it has nuclear weapons and seek its cooperation in preventing them from being proliferated. Others say such an approach would lead South Korea, Japan and perhaps Taiwan to seek their own nuclear arms, undermining, perhaps critically, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
The Reference Shelf
- A related QuickTake on North Korea’s nuclear program.
- A Bloomberg infographic on North Korea’s military buildup.
- A Q&A on why the U.S. missile-defense system, known as Thaad, angers China.
- Bloomberg News showed how money funneled through China makes it harder to apply sanctions to North Korea than to Iran in the past.
- Bloomberg explained why joining the nuclear club is an obsession of North Korea’s leaders.
- A research paper from the U.S.-Korea Institute outlines the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
- Siegfried S. Hecker’s Stanford University paper details his 2010 visit to nuclear facilities and concludes: “The only hope appears to be engagement.”