Once again, the dogged struggle over the future of North Korea's nuclear weapons development program appears to be nearing a moment of truth. On Wednesday, 38 North, a website that tracks political and security developments in North Korea, released satellite imagery of the country's Punggye-ri nuclear test site that indicated Pyongyang is "primed and ready" to trigger a nuclear test explosion, which would be the country's sixth. Expectations are high that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will order the test to be conducted Saturday, the 105th anniversary of the birth of the founder of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, his grandfather Kim Il Sung.
The developments in Pyongyang have riveted the attention of the United States and China on North Korea. In recent weeks, discussions over how to manage — and, if possible, delay or halt — North Korea's nuclearization have dominated the discussions between China and the United States. The issue superseded China's maritime territorial activities and U.S.-China trade ties as the focus of last week's summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping and was the topic of a phone call between the two leaders on Tuesday. In fact, the challenge of North Korea's nuclear weapons program appears to have opened a window for limited cooperation in otherwise tangled negotiations over the numerous other issues the countries face.
Earlier this week, China reportedly turned back a fleet of North Korean cargo ships, making good on its February promise to suspend imports of the country's coal — an important revenue source for the Kim government. On Monday, China and South Korea agreed to impose tougher sanctions on North Korea if it carried out further nuclear or missile tests. The following day, the semi-official Chinese news outlet Global Times said Beijing would support "strictly limiting" oil exports to the North in the event of another nuclear test. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Trump, who had promised a more lenient U.S. approach on what it considers unfair trade and economic policies by Beijing in exchange for China's help reining in North Korea, said he no longer wished to label China a currency manipulator. This came one week after the Financial Times published a Trump interview in which he called the Chinese "world champions" of currency manipulation.
As concessions go, the gestures offered by both sides thus far are weak and largely symbolic. But the powerful incentives both countries have to cooperate on North Korea eventually may compel them to make real sacrifices on other important interests — for example, U.S. defense support for South Korea or China's domestic trade and investment protections. At the same time, there are real limits to what either China or the United States can or will do on North Korea; neither is likely to compromise on all other issues of importance. This is especially true of issues that take precedence over North Korea — such as, for China, Taiwan's status.
Thus far, though, the two countries have traded only low-hanging fruit. Xi's promise made after the summit to lift curbs on Chinese imports of U.S. beef and make it easier for foreigners to invest in Chinese financial institutions may be meaningful for U.S.-China trade and investment ties, but it is not a particularly difficult concession for China. Likewise, in the past, China has periodically imposed coal import bans and temporary oil export curbs on North Korea, but thanks to lax enforcement, the typically short duration of such curbs, and North Korea's energy stockpiles, they have not achieved much of consequence. (Of course, more stringent and durable enforcement could give such curbs greater teeth this time around.) As both Beijing and Washington know, cutting the energy flows both to and from North Korea will not bring the government to its knees anytime soon. Nor will it convince Kim that nuclear weapons aren't necessary for his government's long-term survival.
It's unclear exactly what prompted Trump's public reversal on Chinese currency manipulation — whether his call with Xi, negotiations over North Korea or another factor. But his branding of China as a currency manipulator in the first place was a borderline meaningless charge. The U.S. Treasury Department's biannual report on the currency practices of top U.S. trade partners, set to be released Saturday, is all but certain to show that there was little substance to the claims Trump first touted on the campaign trail. At most, Trump's decision to drop the currency manipulator charge sends a signal to Beijing that Washington is open to compromise for the sake of arriving at some kind of consensus on North Korea.
Notwithstanding the symbolic gestures and pledges of goodwill, Sino-U.S. cooperation on diplomatic responses to North Korea's nuclear weapons program remains substantially unchanged. Of course, the United States has signaled its willingness to use military force unilaterally to disrupt or dismantle Pyongyang's nuclear weapons infrastructure, or even to overthrow the Kim government. Washington's dispatch of its carrier strike group, including the USS Carl Vinson, to nearby waters; pledges of increased defense support for South Korea and Japan; moves to accelerate deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense missile system in South Korea; and, arguably, its missile strike against Syria — which Trump ordered over dessert during Xi's visit — are cases in point. But it is exceedingly difficult to say whether these moves represent a credible, impending threat to North Korea or are primarily meant to pressure China to act. Unless Washington genuinely believes Pyongyang is a paper tiger, the United States must expect that any action against the North will trigger a major conflagration on the Korean Peninsula. Neither Japan nor South Korea, much less China, would support such a move.
The challenge when it comes to the United States and China exercising the "diplomatic option" on North Korea is threefold. What does the United States actually want or expect from China, and what is it willing to give up in return? What can China, given its constraints, reasonably do to handle Pyongyang? And most important, will anything short of removing the Kim leadership — with all the risks that would bring — alter the North's current course? Perhaps North Korea's next nuclear test will provide tentative answers to these questions. More likely, it will reveal the fundamental fissures that continue to divide China and the United States, limiting their capacity to cooperate meaningfully to change Pyongyang's behavior through diplomacy, and making Pyongyang's eventual attainment of a full-fledged nuclear deterrent all the more feasible.