WASHINGTON (CN) – Experts say the key to slowing nuclear proliferation in North Korea while avoiding full-scale military action is to levy hefty economic sanctions on China – one of the country’s remaining trade partners.
Talk was terse but emphatic during a two-hour-long hearing hosted by the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
Dr. Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor in Korean studies at Tufts University, told representatives that under the current trade dynamic in North Korea, “China will remain more an obstacle than key to North Korea’s denuclearization.”
Other experts called to testify resoundingly agreed, including Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation and Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
China is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s last remaining major ally and is the country’s primary provider of food and coal exports, all of which help fund the autocrat’s bid to build bombs.
Lee added that, although the path to disarmament lies through China, it can come only “through a China incentivized by economic disincentives to change course and out of pragmatic considerations, which, even if applied begrudgingly, increase pressure on Pyongyang’s international finances.”
On the global stage, China has appeared apprehensive about exerting any strong-arm economic tactics on its neighbor. To do so could create instability in the region.
Increasing tariffs and expanding other secondary sanctions would, however, be a move fully within “the diplomatic arsenal and legal authority” of the U.S., Lee testified.
Shifting responsibility to China is a concept that President Donald Trump laid at the feet of his followers on Twitter last week.
Trump chastised North Korea, tweeting that the nation had been “playing the United States for years” and then punched over to China, adding, “China has done little to help!”
On Sunday, Trump repeated his assertion about North Korea being “very, very bad” to a reporter pool as he left his Mar-a-Lago home.
The assessment comes after a month of contentious action by the North Korean regime.
Jong-un has fired four rockets into the northern sea of Japan in the last 30 days. On Monday, the country’s media issued reports that North Korea had successfully completed its latest round of rocket-engine tests, dubbing the development a “great leap forward” in the nation’s nuclear goals.
As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has traveled through Asia over the last few weeks, he has offered a murkier stance on his department’s position on North Korea.
First, Tillerson strongly proclaimed that no military options by the U.S. would be left “off the table” should North Korea continue to aggressively pursue its nuclear program.
A more diplomatic tack appeared several days later after Tillerson met with the president of China and suggested that cooperative measures be the priority.
Tangling with China-North Korea trade relationships, while unappetizing to Congress, can be done effectively and with finesse, according to experts at the hearing.
Bruce Klingner told representatives that Chinese trade behavior can be influenced if U.S. officials make it clear that the Bank of China itself defied the government of China in cutting off ties with North Korea “lest the bank face U.S. sanctions itself,” he said.
“The action showed that U.S. government actions can persuade Chinese financial entities to act in their self-interest even against the wishes of the Chinese government,” Klingner said.
Imposing any secondary sanctions would fall under the terms set in the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which was passed in 2016 under the Obama administration.
Anthony Ruggiero of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies also suggested that even tighter basic surveillance of activities at foreign banks that do business with North Korea could stave off military response to Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions.
“North Korea is deceptive… but banks are responsive when they are asked the right question,” Ruggiero said.
Ruggiero recalled an instance in September 2016 when the North Korean regime deposited a sum of $1.3 million in a Chinese bank. In only a matter of months, the deposit total jumped to upward of $110 million.
“The bank should have investigated that company and asked why [it happened so quickly],” Ruggiero said.
Rep. Ben Sherman, D-Calif., had no illusions about China’s relationship with North Korea but stressed that a focus on the connective ties at home must also be addressed if putting a stop to the arms race is a real priority for the new administration.
“Foreign direct investment is North Korea’s lifeline,” Sherman said. “But it is Wall Street policy and the policy of Wall Street is to make a lot of noise, pound the table, sanction a few companies. But don’t interrupt the huge exports from China to the U.S.”
Agreeing with Dr. Lee, Sherman emphasized his support of putting a tariff on “virtually all Chinese exports to the U.S.”
“Wall Street doesn’t want us to do it, therefore we won’t do it, therefore the real objective of the Trump administration is to yell loudly but not actually do anything to be effective,” Sherman said.