China to play piv­otal role in U.S.-North Korean re­la­tions

Trump can­cels highly an­tic­i­pated June 12 sum­mit

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

Pres­i­dent Trump’s can­cel­la­tion of the sum­mit with Kim Jong-un amid hos­tile posturing from North Korea sets the stage for a new wave of brinkman­ship and a dra­matic ex­pan­sion of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “max­i­mum pres­sure” sanc­tions cam­paign against Py­ongyang.

A key fac­tor, ac­cord­ing to sources close to the White House, will cen­ter on whether China — North Korea’s clos­est ally and only ma­jor trade part­ner — chooses to sup­port Mr. Kim amid the break­down in diplo­macy or to help Washington en­force far sharper and more ag­gres­sive sanc­tions.

With Bei­jing so far of­fer­ing no pub­lic re­ac­tion to Thurs­day’s de­vel­op­ment, con­cerns are swirling in Washington over the ex­tent to which China may be seiz­ing on the sit­u­a­tion to squeeze con­ces­sions from Mr. Trump in bare-knuckle trade talks be­tween U.S. and Chi­nese of­fi­cials that are play­ing out in the back­ground.

“The dan­ger here for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is China,” said An­thony Rug­giero, a for­mer Trea­sury Depart­ment sanc­tions an­a­lyst who ar­gues that the ad­min­is­tra­tion may need to ex­pend sanc­tions not only against North Korean in­ter­ests but against Chi­nese com­pa­nies as well, in or­der to co­erce Bei­jing away from its sup­port for Py­ongyang.

“The key … is China and mak­ing clear to the lead­ers in Bei­jing that if they side with North Korea, there is go­ing to be some pain against their banks and their in­ter­ests,” said Mr. Rug­giero, a fel­low with the Foun­da­tion for De­fense of Democ­ra­cies.

He made the com­ments at a dis­cus­sion hosted in Washington by the Cen­ter for the Na­tional In­ter­est, mo­ments af­ter news broke that Mr. Trump had can­celed the highly an­tic­i­pated June 12 sum­mit with Mr. Kim in Sin­ga­pore.

The sum­mit was first thrown into doubt last week amid a sud­den wave of threat­en­ing rhetoric from North Korean of­fi­cials. Mr. Trump said in a pub­lic let­ter to Mr. Kim on Thurs­day that Py­ongyang’s “tremen­dous anger and open hos­til­ity” were un­ac­cept­able.

The de­vel­op­ment sent shock waves through North­east Asia.

Key Amer­i­can ally Ja­pan, which has cau­tioned against mov­ing too quickly to­ward a de­tente with North Korea, re­mained silent Thurs­day night. Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin ex­pressed dis­ap­point­ment with Mr. Trump’s move.

With Russia sec­ond only to China as a quiet backer of North Korea, Mr. Putin of­fered broad sup­port to Py­ongyang, claim­ing Mr. Kim did ev­ery­thing he had promised in ad­vance of the meet­ing and that it was the U.S. who had can­celed.

Moscow’s re­ac­tion stood in con­trast to that from South Korean Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in, who scram­bled into the night to try to sal­vage the prospect of diplo­macy.

“De­nu­cle­ariza­tion of the Korean Peninsula and the es­tab­lish­ment of per­ma­nent peace are his­toric tasks that can nei­ther be aban­doned nor de­layed,” Mr. Moon said at an emer­gency meet­ing with his top se­cu­rity of­fi­cials in Seoul, ac­cord­ing to South Korea’s Yon­hap News Agency.

Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo, tes­ti­fy­ing on Capi­tol Hill, told law­mak­ers that the can­cel­la­tion of the Trump-Kim sum­mit in some ways could be read as “sit­u­a­tion nor­mal” be­tween the U.S. and North Korea.

“The global pres­sure cam­paign that is put in place is im­por­tant and needs to con­tinue,” he said. “Per­haps even this morn­ing more than yes­ter­day.”

But while Mr. Pom­peo ex­pressed con­fi­dence that China would work with the U.S. to main­tain pres­sure on Py­ongyang, ques­tions loomed over Bei­jing’s ul­ti­mate re­ac­tion.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, like the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, has gone to great lengths to urge Bei­jing to play a more ro­bust role in in­flu­enc­ing North Korea to­ward halt­ing its bal­lis­tic mis­sile and nu­clear weapons ac­tiv­i­ties, both of which vi­o­late years of U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tions.

Frus­tra­tion has long sim­mered in Washington that China — de­spite sign­ing off on those Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tions — is qui­etly drag­ging its feet and play­ing a dou­ble game by tac­itly back­ing North Korea as a tool to gain lever­age against the U.S. in other are­nas.

While Mr. Trump has pub­licly praised Bei­jing for help­ing on North Korea, the pres­i­dent au­tho­rized the Trea­sury Depart­ment in June to tar­get a host of Chi­nese en­ti­ties and in­di­vid­u­als for sup­port­ing il­le­gal fi­nan­cial ac­tiv­ity with Py­ongyang.

How­ever, U.S. of­fi­cials blocked only one Chi­nese bank from ac­cess to the global fi­nan­cial sys­tem, and na­tional se­cu­rity sources told The Washington Times of a heated bat­tle at the time in­side the White House over whether and how to im­pose ad­di­tional sanc­tions on Chi­nese in­sti­tu­tions.

Key Repub­li­can law­mak­ers and sev­eral out­side ad­vis­ers spent the pe­riod push­ing for Mr. Trump to move ag­gres­sively for­ward with such sanc­tions. But some of the pres­i­dent’s top aides, in­clud­ing thenNa­tional Eco­nomic Coun­cil Direc­tor Gary Cohn, were seen to be warn­ing against such a move be­cause of fear among Wall Street in­vest­ment firms of a harsh back­lash from Bei­jing.

With Mr. Cohn hav­ing left the ad­min­is­tra­tion, the pres­i­dent may now be poised to more ag­gres­sively tar­get Chi­nese banks. But the ques­tion among an­a­lysts is whether the tense U.S.-China trade ne­go­ti­a­tions might limit how far Mr. Trump is will­ing to go.

The pres­i­dent him­self has raised the specter of a con­nec­tion be­tween the U.S.China trade ne­go­ti­a­tions and the North Korea sit­u­a­tion. He has also pub­licly sug­gested that China may be us­ing its in­flu­ence over North Korea to gain lever­age in the ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Speak­ing with re­porters at the White House on May 17, Mr. Trump noted that North Korea took a sud­den shift back to­ward hos­tile posturing against Washington only af­ter Mr. Kim made an un­ex­pected visit to Bei­jing.

“I think things changed a lit­tle bit when they met with China,” said Mr. Trump, who noted in the same breath that his ad­min­is­tra­tion was en­gaged in ma­jor trade talks with the Chi­nese and that the U.S. “has been ripped off for many, many years by its bad trade deals.”

Some an­a­lysts said China is less than ea­ger to see the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion suc­ceed in its pur­suit of a ma­jor diplo­matic break­through with Py­ongyang.

Re­tired Ma­rine Lt. Gen. Wal­lace Greg­son said China is aligned with North Korea’s strate­gic de­sire to dis­rupt the net­work of U.S. re­gional al­liances with South Korea and Ja­pan and that Bei­jing, for the time be­ing, may be will­ing to turn a blind eye to Py­ongyang’s pos­ses­sion of nu­clear weapons.

China “does not want a democ­racy on its bor­der, [and] it most def­i­nitely does not want U.S. forces on its bor­der,” Mr. Greg­son said at the dis­cus­sion hosted by the Cen­ter for the Na­tional In­ter­est, where he is the se­nior an­a­lyst on China and the Pa­cific.

“North Korea’s nu­clear weapons are a means to that end,” he said, adding that “China would wel­come any col­lat­eral dam­age out of all this to the U.S. al­liance struc­ture.”

Mr. Rug­giero, mean­while, said Mr. Trump’s with­drawal from the Kim sum­mit was “not re­ally sur­pris­ing” be­cause North Korea ap­pears to be un­will­ing to make a se­ri­ous com­mit­ment to to­tally aban­don its nu­clear weapons — a key de­mand that the White House has said must be met up­front for any talks to­ward sanc­tions relief to pro­ceed.

“The real ques­tion here is whether North Korea has made a strate­gic de­ci­sion to de­nu­cle­arize,” Mr. Rug­giero said. “I think that we now know that they have not.”

He added that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “max­i­mum-pres­sure sanc­tions frame­work” re­mains in place for “a rapid re­sump­tion and in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion.”

The first step, Mr. Rug­giero said, will be for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to “stop Chi­nese banks from fa­cil­i­tat­ing North Korean sanc­tions eva­sion,” whether it be by Bei­jing, Russia, Iran or any other in­ter­na­tional bro­ker seek­ing to work with Py­ongyang.


Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo, tes­ti­fy­ing be­fore the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee on Thurs­day, said the can­cel­la­tion of the Trump-Kim sum­mit in some ways could be read as “sit­u­a­tion nor­mal” be­tween the U.S. and North Korea.

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