The Trump administration is having trouble navigating talks with North Korea — and the president is suggesting that China might be to blame.
On Monday, President Donald Trump attempted to minimize the wide gulf between the US and North Korea during their high-level negotiations last week. And he floated the theory that any problems might be due to Beijing’s meddling.
“I have confidence that Kim Jong Un will honor the contract we signed &, even more importantly, our handshake,” Trump tweeted, referring to the denuclearization agreement that the US and North Korea signed during the Singapore summit earlier in June. “China, on the other hand, may be exerting negative pressure on a deal because of our posture on Chinese Trade-Hope Not!” he added.
Trump’s somewhat optimistic tweet comes after the US and North Korean officials had very different takeaways from talks last week.
At the end of two days of meetings in Pyongyang, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Saturday that discussions had been “productive.” But North Korea offered up a different take: An unnamed spokesperson for North Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the country found the US delegation’s attitude to be “regrettable,” and its demands to be “gangster-like.”
However, Pompeo insisted on Sunday that talks had, in fact, been fruitful, and dismissed North Korea’s harsh language. “If those requests were gangster-like, the world is a gangster,” he said.
China could actually be empowering North Korea
The apparent disconnect between North Korean and US officials is a big deal — it means there could be some serious gaps in communication about issues like lifting US sanctions and exactly how North Korea will go about dismantling its nuclear program.
But it’s definitely possible that China could be encouraging North Korea to be a bit more aggressive.
Formally speaking, China supports North Korea dismantling its nuclear program, but it also fears that such a development would strengthen US power in the region. North Korea currently serves as a strategic buffer between China and South Korea, which is democratic, and hosts tens of thousands of US troops. Without nukes, North Korea would not be as powerful of a buffer.
Pompeo has said that he believes China has relaxed sanctions against North Korea in recent weeks. That, too, could give North Korea license to act more boldly. If Beijing is signaling that it’s willing to help North Korea survive in defiance of UN sanctions, which are crippling to North Korea’s economy, Pyongyang may feel it has more leverage in negotiations. China is North Korea’s economic lifeline to the world — North Korea relies on China for about 90 percent of its foreign trade.
And as Trump has suggested, it is possible that Beijing feels particularly inspired to interfere with the US’s strategic objectives in light of the burgeoning trade war between the US and China. Last week, both countries imposed tariffs on $34 billion worth of goods from the other country, and there may be more to come.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) shares Trump’s analysis and has also argued that China could be using the trade clash as a pretext for interfering with US-North Korean talks.
“I see China’s hands all over this. We’re in a fight with China,” Graham told Fox News Sunday. “If I were President Trump, I would not let China use North Korea to back me off of the trade dispute. We’ve got more bullets than they do when it comes to trade.”