If North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un was indeed behind the murder of his half brother at Kuala Lumpur airport two weeks ago, as Malaysian police suspect, he could come to regret it.
Not, perhaps, out of remorse. Rather, because the assassination risks unleashing far-reaching strategic consequences: a new US-China campaign against the Supreme Leader’s illegal nuclear weapons program.
“The chances have never been bigger to coordinate” the two countries’ efforts to choke off Pyongyang’s nuclear work, says Zhu Feng, an influential Chinese policy adviser and professor at Nanjing University.
There are signs that Beijing is losing patience with North Korea, and inflicting real economic pain on its wayward ally for the first time. Now, as China at last wields an economic stick, the question is whether the new US administration is ready to offer diplomatic carrots to persuade Mr. Kim to freeze or abandon his nuclear ambitions.
Before he left office, former President Obama warned President-elect Trump that North Korean nukes would be his most urgent foreign policy challenge. Pyongyang is believed to be only a few years away from possessing nuclear warheads and missiles capable of delivering them to West coast cities in the United States.
For years Washington has been urging Beijing to put economic pressure on North Korea, which is dependent on trade with China, to persuade it to desist. The Chinese government has always been reluctant to do so, fearing the consequences of instability in its secretive neighbor.
But 10 days ago, a few days after Kim Jong-nam’s death by nerve gas, China suspended its purchases of North Korean coal until the end of 2017. That will cut Pyongyang’s foreign currency revenues this year by a hefty 30 percent.
Was the move prompted by the murder? Beijing won’t say. But the cut went well beyond what was required by UN economic sanctions (which Beijing has often ignored anyway).
Dancing with the US?
North Korea was furious. Its official news agency carried a commentary accusing China – although not by name – of “inhumane steps … dancing to the tune of the US.”
In fact, says Professor Zhu, “North Korea could be an important point on which to build cooperation” between China and the US because they share an interest in reining Kim Jong-un in. “Bilateral relations need a new driver,” he points out.
The US role in such a tandem project would be to engage in negotiations with Pyongyang and to offer diplomatic benefits to the renegade state. These might include political relations, and a guarantee not to threaten Kim with regime change so that he would not feel the need for nuclear weapons.
Mindful of the fates of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi after they got rid of weapons of mass destruction, North Korea has always said it needs nuclear weapons to ensure its security and sovereignty. Washington and Pyongyang have never signed a peace treaty ending the Korean War.
The trouble is that Kim Jong-nam’s assassination has made it impossible, for the time being at least, for the US administration to countenance any diplomatic contacts with Pyongyang. The State Department refused to issue visas to North Korean diplomats who were due to visit New York this week for informal “track 2” talks with former senior US officials.
And though President Trump has not ruled out meeting Kim Jong-un, “in terms of optics, Kim Jong-nam’s death makes it hard to move forward with any grand gestures,” says Stephan Haggard, a North Korea watcher at the University of California in San Diego.
Though it is “hard to fault” the White House decision to prevent this week’s planned talks from occurring, says John Delury, who teaches politics at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, and favors engagement with the North, “now they have to move proactively to find ways to talk.”
What talks would actually be about is a matter of debate among North Korea watchers, and the Trump administration is said to be reviewing all policy options. But about the only thing everyone agrees on is that Mr. Obama’s policy of “strategic patience,” waiting for UN economic sanctions to bite and force Pyongyang to the negotiating table, clearly failed. The pace of North Korean tests – of nuclear devices and of missiles to carry them – has reached record levels.
How far to push
Previous negotiations over the past two decades, which eventually came to naught, aimed at the verifiable destruction of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
That is unrealistic today given the technical progress Pyongyang has made, says Bill Perry, a former US Defense secretary who negotiated nuclear issues with the North Koreans in 1999.
“They won’t give up their nuclear weapons,” Dr. Perry argues, “because their primary goal is the Kim dynasty’s survival and nuclear weapons are a very successful vehicle for that.” But neither is the regime suicidal enough to risk a retaliatory strike, he adds. “They do not represent a threat of unprovoked attack against the US, Japan, or South Korea.”
Washington should launch talks to stall and reduce the dangers of Pyongyang’s arms program, Perry says, and to ensure a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests and a commitment not to export nuclear or missile technology.
China’s suspension of North Korean coal imports is “a very positive signal,” he believes, and “the basis on which a new round of negotiations could be conducted. We’d need two changes – China being willing to apply economic pressure and the US being willing to go for a lesser goal” than full denuclearization.
That prospect horrifies Robert Gallucci, the former US diplomat who negotiated Washington’s first denuclearization deal with Pyongyang in 1994. Simply freezing North Korea’s nuclear program where it is “would not be a good outcome,” he says. “It would legitimize them as a nuclear weapons state right next door to a US ally.”
But few analysts believe that anything more ambitious is feasible in the foreseeable future, however desirable it might be.
And if the United States is going back to the table, as China is urging and North Korea is hoping, it should move quickly, says Professor Delury.
“If the North Koreans sense that Washington is not serious about negotiations,” he warns, “I suspect that Kim Jong-un will go back to the testing path until all his capabilities are up and running.”