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A North Korea Agenda for the Trump-Xi Summit

By Troy Stangarone

On April 6-7, U.S. President Donald Trump will host Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort for their first summit meeting. While the two leaders will likely discuss a range of issues including trade, climate change, and China’s development of artificial islands in the South China Sea, perhaps no issue will be higher on the agenda than how to handle the challenge presented by North Korea.

In little more than a year, North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests, a space launch that is likely cover for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test, and has begun testing second strike delivery systems such as road mobile missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles. A threat that only a few years ago seemed distant is rapidly becoming imminent.

As the two leaders discuss how to deal with North Korea, there are five issues that they should discuss:

What Steps to Take After a New North Korean Nuclear or ICBM Test

In light of the frequency of tests by North Korea over the past year, Kim Jong-un’s own suggestion that North Korea is in the final preparations for an ICBM test, and recent satellite imagery suggesting a new nuclear test could be imminent, a North Korean nuclear test or ICBM test in the near future is highly likely. How President Trump manages the test by North Korea will be one of the initial challenges for his leadership and his ability to manage relations with China.

During the Obama administration, the United States and China worked productively in the UN Security Council in recent years to heighten the sanctions that North Korea faces as a result of its continued weapons development. However, after each test the introduction of new sanctions at the United Nations could take up to three months. President Trump should instead try to get ahead of the issue and discuss with President Xi the types of new steps that each country could support once the next North Korean test takes place.

The last set of UN sanctions hinted at potential areas for future UN resolutions such as the use of North Korean labor overseas and technical cooperation with other countries. There should be a discussion of whether these or other areas should be future targets for the next round of sanctions so a new resolution could be passed quickly.

When and How to Return to Talks

President Trump should not avoid what is likely to be a key ask for President Xi, that the United States return to talks with North Korea to lower tensions and try to resolve the nuclear issue. Absent war, dialogue will be the eventual path for resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, so the United States and China should begin the process of finding common ground for negotiations. The question ultimately comes down to timing, format, and having a willing partner in North Korea.

President Trump should make clear that the United States is willing to return to negotiations with North Korea as long as the nuclear issue is on the table and that the United States is willing to discuss other issues. However, he should also make clear that the United States will not pursue direct negotiations on the nuclear issue as North Korea has recently suggested and that any talks should have a time limit to preclude North Korea from using the talks as a tool to advance its nuclear and missile programs while relieving the pressure on the regime.

Having the U.S. and China on the same page – and ideally South Korea, Japan, and Russia – will be key to finding a resolution and precluding North Korea from playing one country off of the other.

Defending against North Korea’s Weapon’s Development

Since announcing the decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea, China has sought to utilize diplomatic and economic pressure to convince Seoul to reverse its decision. Beijing has created the impression that it is more troubled by South Korean defensive measures than North Korea’s continued nuclear and ballistic missile development.

While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has already raised the issue of Chinese economic retaliation against South Korea for the deployment of THAAD, President Trump should raise the issue again with President Xi in their meeting and emphasis that as long as North Korea continues its development of nuclear weapons and missiles that can target South Korea, Japan, and the United States, Washington and its allies will continue to take the necessary measure to defend themselves.

While the appropriate level of defensive measures will likely be a contentious issue with President Xi, it will be important for President Trump to emphasize that those measures are only necessary because of North Korea’s continued weapons development.

Addressing North Korea’s Cyber and Online Activities

While North Korea’s weapons programs, and coal on the sanctions side, have received the most attention, one area that is growing increasingly problematic is North Korea’s cyber and online activities. The Sony hack is perhaps the most widely known North Korean cyberattack, but North Korea has also attacked South Korean media, banks, and government offices. Most recently, there are reports that North Korea may have viewed U.S. and South Korean war plans by hacking the Ministry of Defense in South Korea.

Beyond cyberattacks, there is growing evidence that North Korea was behind the cyber theft of $81 million from the Bangladesh’s central bank, which was a broader attempt to steal $500 million. This is just one of numerous banks North Korea may have attacked. Studies also indicate that North Korea uses online gambling and other sites to earn over $850 million per year in hard currency, which is only a few hundred million less than North Korea earned exporting coal to China in 2016.

The issue is relevant to the discussions between President Trump and President Xi for two reasons. First, North Korean efforts to either steal or earn money through the internet offer a significant opportunity to curtail North Korea’s foreign currency earnings. Second, North Korea is known to base some of its cyber operatives in China and their continued operation in China is likely in contradiction to the new cyber codes of conduct reached between China and the United States in 2015.

How the United States Will Handle Secondary Sanctions

The use of secondary sanctions on entities working with North Korea is something that many in the United States have called for and that China has largely resisted. The meeting between Presidents Trump and Xi may present an opportunity to find a way to address both concerns. President Trump should make clear that it is time to begin cracking down on Chinese banks and firms that help to facilitate North Korea’s evasion of international sanctions. However, he should also present it as an opportunity for President Xi. Last year, the Obama administration provided China with information regarding Dangdong Hongxiang that enabled China to open its own investigation into the company’s activities.

While China has always resisted foreign involvement in its domestic law enforcement, the Trump administration could offer to follow through with providing China with additional evidence of companies that are clearly engaged in sanctions busting and enabling China to shut them down. However, the administration should also make clear that should China fail to do so, the U.S. will take action on its own.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Image created by Juni Kim, Program Manager and Executive Assistant, from photos on flickr Creative Commons by Gage Skidmore and GovernmentZA’s photostreams.

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