Yet even if we assume that Trump applies maximum pressure on China, and that China fully complies with Washington’s wishes, it’s uncertain whether a Chinese clampdown could force the North Korean government to relinquish a nuclear arsenal that it has deemed essential for the survival of the Kim regime. North Korea has in recent years demonstrated a considerable degree of independence from China when it comes to its nuclear-weapons program. It has, for instance, persisted with missile tests despite China’s ban on coal imports.
“If China were to abandon all its economic links [with North Korea], North Korea would still not abandon nuclear weapons,” Shen told me. “China does not trust that it is able to stop North Korea. Therefore, China is unwilling to do everything it can to stop North Korea.”
Make a Mega-Deal With China
The drawbacks of the first two approaches have prompted some to propose a third: Zoom out from the North Korean nuclear threat and think more radically. Jay Lefkowitz, a former U.S. special envoy for human rights in North Korea, has urged the Trump administration to negotiate a pact with China in which it abandons America’s post-Korean War policy of supporting unification of the Korean peninsula under South Korean leadership. Todd Rosenblum, a former Obama administration official, has gone much further, suggesting that the United States withdraw American troops from South Korea in return for China ousting the Kim regime from power.
“The U.S. would remove all 30,000 troops from South Korea and close its military bases,” Rosenblum writes. “We could even consider ending its treaty with South Korea. In return, China would not only cease its support for North Korea but help end the Kim dynasty altogether, leaving behind a unified, democratic Korea that swears off nuclear weapons. The U.S. and China would jointly engage South Korea on its absorption of the North, since South Korea knows the cost of German reunification and is appropriately leery of reintegrating 25 million starved, information-deprived people into a modern state.”
Lind agrees that the sheer difficulty of convincing China to “act against its own interests” on North Korea would require some kind of grand bargain with the United States, but she doesn’t think a deal is doable. The concessions that “Washington would have to dangle at Beijing would have to be big—really big,” perhaps involving the U.S.-Japan mutual-defense alliance, disputed islands in the South China Sea, or the sovereignty of Taiwan, she writes. “But, with its many treaty allies and interests in East Asia, Washington would be unwilling to offer that kind of carrot.”
Shen also dismissed the notion of a mega-deal between China and the United States, less because it wasn’t feasible than because the goal of such an agreement would be futile. North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program is “impossible to stop,” he told me, “just like it was impossible to stop American nuclear weapons, impossible to stop Chinese nuclear weapons, impossible to stop Israel’s nuclear weapons, Indian nuclear weapons, and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.”
In that case, I asked, what would he advise the American president to do? “Live with North Korea’s nuclear weapons peacefully,” he said, “just like we live with American nuclear weapons peacefully, we live with Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons peacefully.”