How the U.S. can convince Beijing to exert its leverage against the North Korean nuclear threat.

The rhetoric is certainly heating up on North Korea. President Donald Trump warned North Korea’s leader that if he threatens the United States, he will “be met with the fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The North Koreans responded in kind speaking of “an enveloping fire” and their readiness to target our bases, our allies and the U.S.

Words can trap each side into feeling the need to act militarily, particularly in a crisis. In reality, we are not at that point, but the clock is ticking.

The Defense Intelligence Agency now estimates that the North Korean regime has as many as 60 nuclear weapons. The recent tests of ICBMs are not just about having missiles that can reach the United States but also about testing re-entry vehicles to ensure that they can survive re-entry into the atmosphere.

With the North Koreans surprising the intelligence community with the speed of their advances on missile development, on warhead miniaturization and on the survivability of re-entry vehicles, we are facing the prospect that within a year, a regime that rejects international norms will have the ability to hit the United States with nuclear-armed missiles.

In response, the Trump administration is ratcheting up the pressure. It just engineered a U.N. Security Council resolution that by sanctioning the export of North Korean coal, iron ore and foreign workers could cost the regime one-third of its export earnings. Significantly, the Chinese and Russians supported the resolution.

Unfortunately, imposing sanctions and isolating North Korea is not a new policy – and to date, it has failed. On the contrary, Pyongyang’s march to achieve nuclear-armed ICBMs has accelerated and its response to the sanctions has become more bellicose.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to understand this dynamic, making clear that even as he spearheads greater pressures on North Korea to change course, he is trying to leave them a pathway to do so: “diplomatically, you never like to have someone in a corner without a way for them to get out.”

And, the way out for the secretary: “Talks. Talks with the right expectation of what those talks will be about.”

Sounds good, but as much as the North Koreans have always wanted bilateral negotiations to separate America from South Korea, Kim Jong Un is unlikely to accept talks premised on de-nuclearization of the North. For him, nuclear weapons are the guarantee of regime survival.

Is there a diplomatic way out? Perhaps, but China must exercise its leverage. North Korea depends on China for the bulk of its food, fuel and access to the international financial system. The Kim Jong Un regime might well collapse if China exerted its full leverage.

The problem is that the Chinese fear the collapse of the regime – with the specter of 20 million refugees streaming toward China and U.S. forces on its border – more than it fears a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons.

The Trump administration may say that the military option is on the table, but the Chinese don’t act like they believe it. They know that North Korea has thousands of long-range artillery pieces and large numbers of missiles that could lay waste to Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Secretary of Defense James Mattis described a possible war with North Korea as certain to produce the “worst kind of fighting in most peoples’ lifetime.” South Korea certainly does not want us to exercise the military option.

So what do we do? My proposal: convey to the Chinese that we understand they can’t live with the fall of the regime and believe they cannot get Kim Jong Un to surrender his nuclear bombs; however, simultaneously convey that we can’t live with the North Koreans having nuclear-armed ICBMs.

We might give up the idea of a zero-nuclear option, but if, and only if, North Korea, in a verifiable way, possesses no ICBMs, ends all missile testing and the testing of nuclear weapons, and cannot transfer any nuclear weapons or advanced missile technology to Iran or any third party.

Such a proposal will require the Chinese to exert the full nature of its leverage, but not for an option – de-nuclearization – it believes cannot be achieved. That may be enough to move the Chinese to finally get serious about North Korea’s threat, provided, of course, they also understand that if they fail to act or alter Kim Jong Un’s path, we will provide significantly more anti-missile defenses and offensive missile capability to South Korea and Japan and also increase our own military presence in the region. Since the Chinese will see such moves as containing their power – and even presaging possible military strikes against North Korea – their incentive to move Kim Jong Un is bound to increase.

China holds the most important cards for addressing the North Korean threat, but until now we have not offered a combination of inducements and threats that were sufficient to alter their calculus. It is time we did so.

By Dennis Ross


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