Trump’s Risky Reliance on China to Handle North Korea

The long-run impact of the Trump administration’s policies toward the region are unclear.



It’s been an odd few weeks on the Korean peninsula. Many blame North Korean military parades and the recent missile test. Though such events may be the primary causes for the current tensions, they are fairly commonplace in Pyongyang.


Instead, the United States and its new administration is the new factor in the mix. The Trump administration’s moves may have deterred North Korea from conducting a sixth nuclear test for now. And reports from the China-North Korea border suggest that Chinese authorities are at least enforcing sanctions on North Korea to some degree, causing concern in Pyongyang.


But the historical pattern suggests that Chinese enforcement of sanctions on North Korea is often temporary. President Trump’s statement that he has “great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea” may be premature. China’s strategic interest in maintaining status quo remains the same. Overall, American policy moves and signals on Korea over the past few weeks may have done more harm than good for U.S. policy objectives in the long run.


Two steps forward…


Initial U.S. language in the current crisis (if we can call it that), alluding to possible strikes should the north conduct a sixth nuclear test, had even hardliners in North Korea policy concerned. The apparent move to send the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier, to waters near the Korean peninsula, looked like a tangible escalation.


Signaling by the United States is not a new phenomenon. After North Korea’s nuclear test in September 2016, the U.S. flew B-1 bombers over South Korea as a message to North Korea that the U.S. can and will hit back if need be. But combined with the new tone from the U.S. administration, the bigger picture was one of escalation.


In the short run, this might all have worked in America’s favor. The fact that preparations looked to be under way for a nuclear test that didn’t happen suggests that perhaps North Korea blinked in the standoff.


…And two steps back?


The long-run impact of the Trump administration’s moves, however, is less clear, primarily for two reasons.


First, the bluff with the USS Carl Vinson did immense damage to the U.S. reputation in South Korea. Combined with Trump’s remarks about Korea as a historical “part of China,” and it almost looks impressive how many classical “don’ts” the administration managed to cram into only a few days.


The potential consequences are obvious. North Korea may take future U.S. moves and threats of action less seriously, knowing that the administration has already taken a big-time bluff measure once. Or, perhaps more dangerously, they may believe that the U.S. is bluffing even when the administration is in fact prepared to take real and potentially catastrophic action to strike back at North Korea. 


The damage is also great to the U.S. relationship with South Korea, one of its most important allies in East Asia. In the long run, the South Korean general public and policymakers will now have to question, with good reason, whether the U.S. is really committed to concrete action in its alliance with South Korea.


This rift alone is a victory for North Korea. Driving wedges into the U.S.-South Korea alliance obviously lies in Pyongyang’s interest. By escalating tensions and hoping that the U.S. will back down, the North Korean regime probably takes into account the opportunity to cause doubt among South Koreans whether the U.S. will really come to its aid in the event of a crisis.


Follow the link to see the source article published by The Diplomat April 24, 2017.



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