Here’s How China Plays North Korea—And Trump
In Kim Jong Un, Beijing has been nurturing a “rabid dog.” Can he be tamed as part of a trade deal with Washington?
A retired senior Chinese military officer bragged a few years ago at a public conference in Asia, “North Korea is a rabid dog we have in a large cage.” And Beijing continues to hold the leash while keeping the the dangerous canine fed.
China has provided crucial economic and diplomatic lifelines to Pyongyang plus technology, components, equipment, and materials for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs—all the while claiming that it’s taming the beast, but keeping the rest of the world guessing about whether it will break out of the Chinese constraints.
Now we see that North Korea, in the wake of the second summit between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un, is upgrading and rebuilding both rocket and missile facilities.
At the same time, Chinese officials are working hard to clinch a trade deal with the Trump administration, and these developments are linked, even when no direct connections are drawn.
Commercial satellite imagery from March 6 shows that the Sohae Satellite Launch Facility at Tongchang-ri is now back at “normal operational status.” In recent days, workers rebuilt the engine test stand and the rail transfer station.
Last September, during Kim’s summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the North Korean leader promised to close Sohae as a confidence-building measure. There had been some dismantlement of the site after the announcement.
Moreover, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, according to reports, has recently observed heightened activity at the Sanumdong missile production center, near the capital of Pyongyang.
Analysts suggest these reports point to a rocket or missile launch in coming weeks. North Korea last tested a missile on November 29, 2017, when it arced its Hwasong-15 into the heavens. The test demonstrated that the missile, with a flatter trajectory, would be able to travel downrange more than 8,000 miles, sufficient to reach all the American homeland.
The activities at Sohae and Sanumdong has been interpreted as attempts to pressure Trump into accepting Pyongyang’s “denuclearization” proposals. American and North Korean sources report conflicting versions of negotiations at the second summit, but it appears the North Korean side initially asked for—and insisted upon almost until the end of the meeting—relief from all sanctions in return for shuttering part of the nuclear complex at Yongbyon. Moreover, despite repeated U.S. requests, the North has refused to provide a declaration of all missile and nuclear weapons sites.
Considering everything, Pyongyang has so far taken an unusually bold stance in negotiations with the Trump administration.
Few people truly know the extent to which that position has the support of Beijing, but there has been evident coordination between the Chinese and North Koreans during the Trump presidency.
Kim Jong Un traveled to China three times last year, once to Beijing, at the end of March; again in the beginning of May, to Dalian; and again in June, to Beijing, after the Singapore summit. Moreover, Kim got on his armored train and went to Beijing in January, spending his birthday there during the trip.
For his part, Xi Jinping, the Chinese ruler, has yet to step on North Korean soil. This one-way street makes it clear Beijing exercises extraordinary control over its only formal military ally.
Indeed, decades-long connections have created the impression that solutions to North Korea run through Beijing.
This was especially true during the administration of the generous, patient, and gullible George W. Bush, who had put Beijing at the center of the international community’s efforts to disarm the Kim family. All rounds of the now-defunct Six-Party Talks, which ran from 2003 until 2009, were hosted in Beijing and chaired by China.
Enter Trump. President No. 45 has, by talking directly to Kim Jong Un, cut Beijing out of the equation, and from all indications that alarmed Xi, especially last spring.
Now Xi is in need—perhaps desperate need—of an agreement to end the so-called “trade war.” The U.S.-China struggle has aggravated a Chinese economic slowdown that had been years in the making, and now Xi needs a confidence booster, like a favorable agreement with the U.S.
Xi last week removed from his calendar a trip to Mar-a-Lago to clinch a trade deal at the end of this month. The narrative is that he was concerned that the American leader would walk out on him as he walked out on Kim Jong Un in Hanoi at the end of last month.
There is, however, an alternative explanation. Perhaps the deferral of the trip to Florida is the result of Xi waiting for Kim to cause more trouble—missile or rocket launch?—so that the Chinese can appear to come to Trump’s rescue on denuclearization and therefore win trade concessions.
The Chinese have always dangled cooperation on North Korea in return for help on something else, and at first Trump appeared to fall for that oft-used ploy. In 2017, he regularly begged Beijing for help, often making embarrassing pleas public. “I have been soft on China because the only thing more important to me than trade is war,” he said to the New York Times in December of that year. “If they’re helping me with North Korea, I can look at trade a little bit differently, at least for a period of time. And that’s what I’ve been doing.”
So will Trump attempt a “grand bargain” with China? The trend of news says he will, but there is history to suggest the opposite. Trump, after all, gave Xi slack in 2017 and early 2018, hoping for aid on North Korea, handing to Beijing free passes on trade, South China Sea, and Taiwan. For instance, the interim trade deal, announced by the Commerce Department in May 2017, looked like it would in fact increase the U.S. trade deficit with China.
When Xi disappointed Trump one too many times, however, Trump pounced, in March of last year. Then, the administration imposed on China stiff tariffs, under the authority of Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974.
Now, most everyone expects Trump to come to some agreement with China, but Beijing should not be too confident that the U.S. will fall for this trick one more time.