On China and North Korea: The Strength Of Weakness And The Limits Of Power

tags: foreign policy, China, North Korea, Trump

Kenneth Pomeranz is University Professor of History and East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, and a past president of the American Historical Association. His most recent book is "The Cambridge World History" (2015), for which he co-edited the volumes covering the world since 1750. 

When President Donald Trump says that if China doesn't help solve the North Korea problem, "we will solve the problem without them," or hints at rewarding Beijing if it makes Pyongyang behave, people understandably focus on what (if anything) that says about U.S. intentions. 

Meanwhile, Vice President Pence's comments at the DMZ Monday — emphasizing the American "resolve" demonstrated in Syria and Afghanistan, and saying that China needs to apply more pressure on Pyongyang — suggest that there's no real disagreement on goals, just on who will take the hard steps to get there. 

But we should also ask what it would mean to "solve" North Korea from China's perspective, and how likely it is that Chinese President Xi Jinping's government could do so. 

Beijing has no affection for Kim Jong Un; the apparent murder of the North Korean leader's half-brother, Kim Jong Nam — who spent years in Macao and had good relations with Chinese officials — made a tense relationship worse. 

China would prefer a denuclearized Korean peninsula, especially if South Korea then gave up on deploying the U.S.-designed THAAD missile defense system. By contrast, an enlarged North Korean nuclear arsenal, likely to lead to further militarization in South Korea and Japan, conflicts with Chinese goals; war on the peninsula would be disastrous. ...

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