Officials in the Trump administration are currently working on policy proposals concerning how to deal with the perpetually belligerent North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-Un. The proposals include additional sanctions on North Korea, increased military defenses in the region, and sanctions against those who do business with and in North Korea.
This last point would affect Chinese companies and is likely to be a discussion point at the U.S.-Chinese summit planned in April.
However, China itself has also been increasing pressure on North Korea in an attempt to tame its behavior. In 2016, it froze bank accounts held by North Koreans in China. Last month it banned coal imports from the country.
China has vested interests which cause it to attempt to reign in North Korea while preventing its descent into chaos. China shares an 880 mile long border with the rogue country and is more prosperous and modern. Were North Korea to fall, China’s fear is that it would be swamped with people fleeing the chaos. In addition, no one knows for sure to what lengths the North Korean leadership would go in order to remain in power.
Therefore, all the countries in the region – as well as the U.S. – have a difficult objective: marginalize the North Korean leadership in the hope of softening its behavior so that ultimately some sort of “soft-landing” can be achieved where the North reforms and enters into the modern world. China adds an additional point to that objective: they do not want to bear the brunt of a North Korean collapse. Russia also wants the region to remain stable. South Korea has similar concerns and they, along with Japan, also must worry about North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
North Korea has been testing nuclear weapons since 2006 and may have upwards of a couple dozen weapons. If past history is any guide, any increase of Western sanctions on North Korea will cause North Korea to ramp up its saber rattling and threats. This has previously led to some sort of concessions from the U.S. and other countries such as economic or humanitarian assistance.
Kim Jong-Un, like those who proceeded him, is faced with the balancing act of remaining in power by appeasing their own hard-core Communist officials who view themselves in a perpetual battle against the Capitalist West (and, at times, China) while at the same time not doing something so egregious as to plunge his country into a war which he cannot win and which would end with his removal from power.
No sane person wants a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula. The danger is that Kim Jong-Un and his officials may not be so sane. The Trump administration, like every American administration since the end of the Korean War in 1953, therefore must walk carefully in concert with South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia to deal with North Korea.