Faced with the rapid progress of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs – along with escalating provocations – President Trump’s foreign policy team has engaged in an intensive effort to put “maximum pressure” on the regime and its enablers. A powerful next move would be to call attention to North Korea’s severe human rights violations.
The Trump administration has already: stepped up military exercises and coordination with South Korea and Japan; accelerated missile defense deployment and sent more firepower to the Korean peninsula; worked with Congress on stronger sanctions and fought for the toughest U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea to date; blacklisted Chinese firms and a Chinese bank that are conduits for the North Korean government; and enacted Treasury Department penalties on all individuals and institutions that deal with North Korea.
President Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley have pursued bilateral meetings with their Asian counterparts to emphasize defense commitments with democratic allies, urge China to stop subsidizing North Korea, and convince all countries to freeze North Korean money and cease trade and technology transfers.
The United States wants to so impress North Korea with our military power and resolve – and so choke off North Korea’s revenue and assistance from outside powers – that it overwhelms North Korea’s calculus regarding the risks of continuing on its course and its ability to do so.
President Trump’s language of “fire and fury” and his threat to “totally destroy North Korea” if the U.S. “is forced to defend itself or its allies,” while overly provocative, is likely also designed to affect that calculus, by warning bellicose Kim Jung Un in terms he understands.
In addition to the above steps, Trump administration officials should more frequently condemn North Korea’s extreme human rights violations. It is the extremism of the regime that makes its nuclear weapons so dangerous.
Citing these moral and strategic priorities, the U.S. House recently approved a bill that reauthorizes programs to protect human rights and distribute uncensored information into North Korea.
Noting that “the regime’s greatest victim and longest-held hostage” is the North Korean people themselves, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., said: “If Kim had to answer to the North Korean people, he would pose far less danger to us. The truth is Kim Jong Un’s most potent enemy. … The bonds of public affection for Kim are so fragile that they can only be maintained with purges, public executions, and deadly prison camps.”
China – which subsidizes, abets and protects the atrocity-committing North Korean regime – is finally providing equivocal help, but still obstructs U.S. efforts to apply all the pressure it can to North Korea.
China’s willingness to support recent U.N. resolutions as long as they were diluted to avoid an oil embargo is an obvious example. China’s unprecedented instruction to Chinese banks to stop handling North Korean trade is testimony to the sting of recent U.S. sanctions, which bar entities doing business with North Korea from access to the U.S. financial system. Thus, it makes sense to recognize China for this significant move, while keeping up the overall pressure.
Although China does not want North Korea to provoke war and foment chaos, China also does not want the United States to gain influence at the expense of North Korea. China sees North Korea as an essential buffer against U.S. influence.
China has worked long and hard to upend America’s post-WWII role as the guarantor of stability in Asia and has made tremendous strides in recent years in enhancing its geopolitical and military positions.
China has undergone a massive military buildup that includes ballistic and cruise missiles, nuclear submarines and mines; has frenetically built and militarized islands in the South China Sea; has aggressively pursued relations and bases in the Indian Ocean; and has taken a harsh stance on Hong Kong and Taiwan.
China’s aspirations are not just regional, but global. Its “One-Belt One-Road” initiative – which entails building roads, railways and pipelines in Africa, the Middle East and beyond, and includes loans and “poverty projects” – is designed to gain access raw materials, and gain economic and political leverage.
“Confucius Institutes” around the world, including on American college campuses, are designed to disseminate Chinese history and culture in ways flattering to the Chinese government. China knows it cannot achieve its goals without improving its image.
The Economist says China is spending billions of dollars a year “on one of the most extravagant programs of state-sponsored image-building the world has seen.” Massive information operations downplay its political system and territorial ambitions, and portray China as benevolent.
President Xi Jinping is positioning China as the only great power that can maintain world “peace and stability” and foster “global cooperation and prosperity.”
China’s support for North Korea, which includes its practice of forcibly repatriating escapees, is an Achilles heel that could undermine efforts to shore up and sanitize its image. We should therefore shame China for supporting a regime that inflicts such horrors on its people.
We should stress that a country that stands for “peace and stability” can hardly stand with bellicose, erratic North Korea; and that if China truly wanted a humane and cooperative world, it would not bolster the severely oppressive and insular hermit kingdom.
If China’s quest for world power depends as much upon its image as China thinks, then exposing China’s symbiotic relationship with a country that routinely commits some of the worst atrocities on the planet seems another way to change its calculus about the benefits and costs of that relationship. China’s own human rights violations belie its propaganda, but its backing of North Korea has the potential to destroy its reputation.
China should have to salvage its reputation by showing that it really does put the interests of humanity ahead of North Korea’s. It is time for a “Tear Down This Wall” entreaty to China that includes both moral principles and existential concerns.