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After decades of diplomacy in Korea, it is clear there is no deal to strike. Kim Jong Un wants to reunify the Korean Peninsula under his rule and eject America from the region. North Korea’s actions since the first nuclear crisis, more than two decades ago, show this is not mere talk. The regime has used every agreement for 20 years to build more weapons and extort more money. Mr. Kim is close to having a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile, threatening the U.S. and its allies. The only solution is to remove him. But how?
A war would be extremely costly. The better choice—though still not an easy one—is to put serious pressure on China to cut off its trade with North Korea. At the same time, the U.S. should make clear it is open to working with Beijing to replace Mr. Kim with a regime willing to forgo weapons of mass destruction.
The coercion of China should be two-pronged. First, the U.S. should further tighten its alliance with Japan and South Korea, forcing Beijing to reckon with its encirclement in Northeast Asia. For China, a well-armed, interlinked Northeast alliance system is a strategic catastrophe.
But the real change would be to move from pinprick sanctions on Chinese companies doing business with North Korea to economic coercion. North Korea is already effectively under a global embargo—with one glaring exception. Pyongyang’s trade with China—which accounts for 90% of its total trade—has increased in recent years, customs data show.
North Korea receives almost all its imports from China, including oil products. Chinese minerals feed Pyongyang’s industrial and military production. Payments sent for North Korean seafood and textiles serve the same purpose.
Rising trade is no accident. China and North Korea have recently created shipping and modern rail routes to boost trade. The Guomenwan border trade zone that opened in October 2015 in Dandong, China, was established to promote bilateral economic links. These moves mock the United Nations sanctions to which China has pledged fidelity.
This obviously undermines U.S. interests, and it is time to respond meaningfully. A few companies that do business with North Korea are under international sanctions, but this imposes little cost on China. Often companies cease their activity (or disappear entirely), and new ones arise to replace them.
True sanctions would go further. It’s a sham to pick out individual Chinese enterprises for sanctions as if they are independent of the government. The Communist Party can control the economy. Many Chinese companies are simply interchangeable tools, used by the party at different times for different purposes.
The West should not play China’s shell game. Beijing should not be allowed to effectively determine who is subjected to sanctions for North Korean links, as if these are rogue entities that have nothing to do with the party-state. One Chinese state bank should not be allowed to do global business while another suborns North Korea.
The correct targets are the huge state-owned sisters of the entities doing business with North Korea, those with sizable international business and assets. When it comes to China’s support for North Korea, there is little difference between, say, one state-sponsored metals firm and another. Don’t impose sanctions only on Limac Corp. for its supposed venture in the North; put them also on Minmetals, the dominant firm and a major global presence. Don’t stop at penalizing Dalian Global Unity Shipping as if it’s separate from the Chinese state; target kingpin China Ocean Shipping. Don’t subject Bank of Dandong to sanctions without also targeting the behemoth Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.
This is what a serious attempt to change Chinese behavior would look like. It would put enormous pressure on the Communist Party to relieve the pain inflicted on Chinese elites. Such economic coercion has not been tried because it is risky. If sanctions actually begin to hurt China, Beijing will retaliate before it cooperates. The recently announced Sino-American beef deal will be first in the firing line, along with U.S. exports of soybeans, aircraft and other goods and services. Many will fret that the U.S. is causing instability. But Americans have to choose: Is economic tension with China as bad as a nuclear-armed North Korea?
Or is North Korea a “clear and present danger,” as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said? If so, all means short of war should be used to depose Mr. Kim. The tension with China needn’t be permanent: Sanctions would vanish if China helps remove the Kim regime and works toward a peaceful peninsula. The other option is to live with a nuclear-armed Kim Jong Un.
Mr. Blumenthal is director of Asian studies and Mr. Scissors a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
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