As North Korea rapidly develops the ability to strike the mainland United States with a nuclear missile, the Trump administration has adopted a well-known strategy: demand China do more to pressure Pyongyang. But American presidents have pressed on Beijing to rein in North Korea for the past 25 years with little success. There’s no reason to believe Trump’s efforts will end any differently. Without China pulling the plug on North Korea, the crisis will not abate.
The U.S., then, could soon face two horrible options: start a catastrophic war that would kill hundreds of thousands of South Koreans or live with a nuclear-armed North Korea capable of striking Washington.
It’s a frightening possibility, one that Trump and other top U.S. policymakers must do everything to avoid. But if we really want to block the North’s nuclear program without another Korean War, it requires us to think carefully about what could actually persuade China to cut off its support for the North Korean regime. And that leads us to a previously unthinkable idea: giving real consideration to removing all American troops from a unified peninsula in exchange for China proactively leading the transition to a unified Korea. Though it has been unthinkable for years—and still may be—such a deal would also create a kind of leverage that nothing else has.
The United States has spent more than a quarter century imploring China to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions and be a responsible member of the international community, dating as far back as the 1990s when I was a delegate to the Four Party Peace Talk for the Korean Peninsula. We have tried sticks—diplomatic and economic sanctions—against China and we have tried honey, praising Beijing for half steps it has taken to pressure Pyongyang. We have sought an international consensus through the United Nations and have made China a co-equal, central actor in peace and security talks. Nothing has persuaded Beijing to abandon its lifeline to the North Korean state.
China has taken a few steps toward reining in North Korea, such as cutting off coal exports earlier this year. But it has not wavered in its view that a unified, Western-oriented peninsula would be far more threatening to its core national security interests than anything the North Korean state has done or will do. Unification, China believes, likely would end with the U.S. military on its border, an unacceptable risk. In turn, China has refused to take the necessary steps to really damage the North Korean regime, such as closing its border to North Korea, blocking the flow of North Korean worker remittances, or enforcing a blockade against North Korean shipping.
After Trump entered office, his administration quickly realized the threat posed by North Korea and has made it a top issue, even offering to relax some of his trade demands if Chinese President Xi Jinping offers more help with North Korea. But in Trump’s first six months, little has changed. Pyongyang has continued to test missiles, including recently conducting its first successful ICBM test, while China has continued to protect the Kim regime—as Trump himself acknowledged earlier this month when he tweeted, “so much for China working with us.”
Perhaps, then, we need to ask ourselves some very hard questions about what we are really willing to give to get Chinese support for fully ending its backing of the North Korean regime. What will it take for Beijing to change its calculus on unification? Are there things China believes worth it to give up on its buffer state against the United States?
The answer is yes. In fact, many national security experts know what the Chinese would demand: China wants the U.S. military off the peninsula. South Korea is a vital defense, security and trade partner of the United States. There are nearly 30,000 U.S. troops stationed on South Korean soil, down from more than 300,000 Americans who were stationed in Korea in 1951 but still a significant number. The U.S. and South Korea are also treaty allies; Washington is obligated to defend South Korea if attacked.
Here’s how a deal could work: The U.S. would remove all 30,000 troops from South Korea and close its military bases. We could even consider ending our treaty with South Korea. In return, China would not only cease its support for North Korea but help end the Kim dynasty altogether, leaving behind a unified, democratic Korea that swears off nuclear weapons. The U.S. and China would jointly engage South Korea on its absorption of the North, since South Korea knows the cost of German reunification and is appropriately leery of reintegrating 25 million starved, information-deprived people into a modern state.
Is eliminating the U.S. military presence on the peninsula a fair price for China finally—and fully—pulling the plug on North Korea? It’s a difficult question with huge security and economic implications, and I’m honestly not sure about the answer. The rapid fall of the Kim regime isn’t even guaranteed under such a deal and there’s a real possibility that a unified Korea would align more closely with China than the U.S., undermining our strength in the region. The U.S.-Japan-South Korean alliance is always under stress, and ending it would take away a core pillar of U.S. policy.
But unlike our previous strategies on North Korea, this one would at least have a real shot at advancing our strategic interests while avoiding a bloody and destabilizing war. That’s because there’s a lot for Beijing to like in it. A deal would enhance China’s ability to dominate the region as the primary military power. Its muscle flexing has grown exponentially in the past decade, ranging from seizing disputed islands and militarizing self-built artificial reefs, declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone over much of the South and East China Seas, and commencing sea trials of its first aircraft carrier. Withdrawing the massive U.S. military footprint in Korea will further embolden Chinese expansionism.
How will Koreans themselves feel about foreign powers once again trying to dictate its post-unification self-determination? A unified Korea would have to agree to terms of dismantlement, denuclearization and living with limited power projection. In return, the U.S., China and other countries would donate tens of billions to rebuild the north. That cost must be factored into any consideration of such a deal.
These are just a small sampling of the large and small issues associated with this idea. Even commencing discussion of a U.S.-China-Korea deal on the future of North Korea would carry huge risks. The Kim dynasty will not allow for a smooth transition; if it believes that its sovereignty is at risk, it could preemptively strike to ensure its survival. We must be ready for all possibilities.
But with these great risks runs the opportunity to solve the North Korean problem once and for all. We have tried one way for 25 years with little to show in ending today’s dangerous trajectory. Given the stakes, it’s time to consider a new approach—even ideas once considered unthinkable.
Todd M. Rosenblum was a delegate to the U.S.-China-South Korea-North Korea Four Party Peace Talks in the 1990s. He was a senior official at the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security for the Obama administration from 2009 – 2015. He is a nonresident fellow at The Atlantic Council and serves on the Defense Science Board Task Force on Homeland Defense.