WASHINGTON - As a top North Korean military official concluded a visit to China this week in an effort to boost military ties with Beijing, experts said Washington’s big-deal approach could push Pyongyang to deepen its military relations with Beijing, a consequence that could create a rift between Seoul and Washington.
“If we are not going to play a sophisticated strategy … then I guess we’re going to just drive North Korea into the arms of China,” said Ken Gause, director for Adversary Analytics Program at CNA. “It puts China in a greater position to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea if North Korea is leaning toward China.”
Kim Su Gil, director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), returned to Pyongyang Tuesday after visiting Beijing to meet with his Chinese counterpart.
During the meeting Saturday with Zhang Youxia, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, Kim said Pyongyang was ready to “strengthen friendly exchanges between the two armed forces” and bring the “two armed forces to a higher level.”
Closer ties with China
The pledge to bolster military ties between Beijing and Pyongyang followed an agreement that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping made during their fifth summit held in June in Pyongyang. The two leaders agreed to “maintain the tradition of high-level exchanges.”
Pyongyang and Beijing renewed relations when Kim and Xi met for their first summit in March 2018. Relations had been rocky since Kim took power in 2011 and carried out nuclear and missile tests despite Beijing’s opposition. The alliance between Beijing and Pyongyang dates to the Korean War in 1950 when the Chinese army fought on the side of North Korea against South Korea and the U.S.
Experts said while the latest military meeting was largely seen as Beijing’s effort to restore its relations with Pyongyang, including military ties, Washington’s so-called “big-deal approach” could prompt North Korea to pivot toward China, which has been more lax about enforcing sanctions.
“We can go and continue with maximum pressure like we are now,” said CNA’s Gause, referring to a key focus of U.S. policy. “And if we do, it’s going to just push China and North Korea closer together.”
What is 'big-deal approach'?
White House national security adviser John Bolton reiterated U.S. President Donald Trump’s "big-deal approach" toward resolving nuclear issues with Pyongyang in his interview with VOA last week.
“What President Trump called the big deal, when he met with Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, is to make that strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons, and then implement it, and then all kinds of things are possible after that,” Bolton said.
Washington’s approach involves demanding that Pyongyang give up its entire nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief while maintaining pressure through sanctions. At the Hanoi summit in February, the "big-deal approach" fell apart when Kim offered only a partial denuclearization.
Earlier this year, Pyongyang said it would give Washington until the end of this year to change its approach.
Missiles fly, talks do not
Talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been stalled since the Hanoi summit in February, but when Trump and Kim held an impromptu summit at the inter-Korean border in June, the two agreed to resume diplomatic efforts.
However, North Korea has launched six missile tests since late July. The series of missile launches suggests that North Korea has advanced its missile technology to the extent that it is capable of evading South Korea’s missile defense system.
While demonstrating the new weapons, Pyongyang claimed South Korea’s military drills with the U.S. posed a threat to its national security, prompting North Korea to take “self-defense countermeasures” in response. The joint exercises concluded Tuesday.
Amid the missile launches, Kim sent a letter to Trump stating talks would resume once the exercises concluded. At the same time, Pyongyang said it could seek a “new road” in response to military drills.
Pyongyang has yet to follow through on its promises to hold talks even as U.S. Special Representative to North Korea Steve Biegun is in Seoul, ready to talk with Pyongyang. Biegun arrived in Seoul on Tuesday and is expected to be there until Thursday. Although there has been some speculation that Biegun will continue on to Beijing, he’s expected to return to Washington.
Limited military support
Even if Pyongyang does not want its military, the Korean People’s Army (KPA), to be under Chinese influence because of a reluctance to give Beijing “more control over them,” North Korea could seek Beijing’s limited military support, according to Gause.
Evans Revere, acting assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs during the George W. Bush administration, said North Korea “is reluctant to allow Beijing to dictate or dominate [the] KPA.”
However, he continued, “it is reasonable to assume that the North Koreans will press the Chinese for logistical and technical support, and perhaps even ask for more advanced weaponry.”
Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korean studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “The KPA may also benefit from better relations with China.”
China may also seek tighter military cooperation with North Korea if the U.S. decides to deploy intermediate-range missiles in Asia. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said earlier this month that he favored placing the missiles in Asia, which angered China.
“If we are destined for increased U.S.-[China] strategic rivalry, then it would make sense for Beijing to ensure that North Korea remain within its orbit, even while making every effort to wean [South Korea] away from the U.S. alliance structure,” Revere said.
The U.S. consideration for the missile deployment came after it formally withdrew from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty Aug. 2. Washington said the move was a response to repeated treaty violations by Russia.
The U.S. and former Soviet Union agreed upon the Cold War arms control treaty in 1987. It banned them from deploying their nuclear and conventional land-based missiles with ranges between 480 to 5,500 kilometers anywhere in the world.
Bolton said earlier this month that the U.S. willingness to deploy intermediate-range missiles in Asia is in part an effort to protect South Korea.
“Such a move would increase likelihood of expanded strategic military cooperation among China, North Korea and the Russians,” said Revere, adding, “The ‘great game’ in East Asia is about to get more interesting and dangerous.”