President Trump has not been shy in saying the United States could go it alone in dealing with North Korea. Raising the alarming specter of a second Korean War, the president has effectively affirmed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s warning that unilateral military action to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has not been ruled out.
North Korea is on the agenda as Mr. Trump hosts President Xi Jinping of China this week at his Florida estate. Could Mr. Trump’s hints about his North Korea policy show that he plans to enlist Beijing in ousting the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un? And was the missile attack against a Syrian airbase, launched just after Mr. Xi and Mr. Trump met on Thursday evening, meant as a message to the Chinese that Mr. Trump is willing to use force unilaterally — and suddenly — against a tyrannical leader?
Unilateral American military action against North Korea would be politically foolish and militarily disastrous. China would almost certainly intervene, setting up a fraught confrontation with the United States. Without collaboration with Beijing, Washington could not achieve a surgical strike to eliminate Mr. Kim or his nuclear arsenal.
It may seem far-fetched to imagine the United States, with or without China, forcing out the regime in Pyongyang, especially while Washington is still dealing with the aftermath of ousting Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya. But after years of ineffective diplomacy, American strategists would be irresponsible if they failed to explore bringing about the end of the nuclear-armed North Korean regime. The Obama administration reportedly planned for such “collapse scenarios.”
Mr. Trump is right in stating that China has been of little help in restraining North Korea’s increasingly sophisticated nuclear and missile programs. The six-party talks in Beijing dragged on for years with no result. Occasionally, after some particularly egregious act by Mr. Kim, the Chinese tightened their sanctions, but never to the extent that the Kim regime was threatened.
The Trump administration has some leverage in making a deal with Beijing, which also has compelling reasons to work with the United States on hastening the end of the North Korean regime.
First, a unilateral strike by the United States would be likely to drag China into the struggle anyway. Preparation and joint action would allow Beijing to protect its interests. With Mr. Kim out of the picture, Beijing would be free from the constant worry that the unpredictable Mr. Kim could set off a wider war in East Asia.
Second, Beijing could negotiate the removal from South Korea of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, a missile-defense system known as Thaad. Washington deployed it last year to protect South Korea against North Korean missiles, but Beijing fears it could also inhibit its own weapons systems.
Third, China could insist that United States military personnel leave a newly united Korean Peninsula, and that the united Korea be permanently neutral, like Austria after the withdrawal of Soviet and Western troops in 1955. American troops will not leave South Korea as long as Mr. Kim remains in power.
Ideally, both Washington and Beijing would pledge aid to assist Seoul in the mammoth task of rebuilding the threadbare North Korean economy.
It is easy enough to list the benefits to China and the United States of ending the Kim dynasty. Achieving a level of trust between the two rivals, capable of sustaining so momentous a joint operation, would be far more difficult.
Washington and Beijing could start with agreements on other thorny problems. Mr. Trump would have to moderate his trade policy demands. Mr. Xi would have to acknowledge other nations’ right to freely pass through the South China Sea and end China’s militarization of the various islets there.
But even if Mr. Xi were open to a Chinese role in taking down the North Korean state — and on balance, autocrats are not risk-takers — there are forces at home tying his hands for the immediate future. Mr. Xi appears to have no serious rivals for power, but cooperating with the United States could embolden potential detractors who see Washington as the enemy, especially if the cooperation ended in failure.
The Chinese Communist Party will hold its 19th Congress this fall, and Mr. Xi is expected to consolidate his leadership by installing his closest supporters in the Politburo and its Standing Committee. Action against North Korea before then would be politically too risky for him.
If Mr. Trump has any plan to enlist Mr. Xi to help bring down Kim Jong-un, he will have to wait. In the meantime, there would be much to negotiate and to plan to ensure that a strike against the North Korean regime and its weapons of mass destruction is foolproof.
Roderick MacFarquhar, a research professor of history and political science at Harvard, is a co-author of Mao’s Last Revolution.