U.S. Markets closed

What China can do behind the scenes to foil North Korea nuke program

Patti Domm

President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping may say little publicly about North Korea after they talk this week, but China has the leverage to quietly exert plenty of pressure on Pyongyang if it chooses, experts say.

North Korea sent a reminder about its weapons program when it fired a ballistic missile this week into waters off its east coast, just ahead of the first talks between the two presidents at Trump's private club, Mar-a-Lago, on Thursday and Friday. Trump may point to this latest incident as a way to get Xi on board to deal more seriously with Kim Jong Un 's nuclear ambitions.

"There's so much at stake, the Trump administration is going to work on a way forward. They're expecting much more from China. How Beijing responds to this call for action will be a clear signal to Trump on how serious they are about the U.S.-China tie," said Meredith Sumpter, director Eurasia Group.

"Ninety percent of North Korea's trade is with China, and the Trump administration sees that as clear leverage that China can use," said Sumpter.

China has tread softly with North Korea, in part for fear that making it unstable could result in a massive refugee flow across the Yalu River separating the two countries, destabilizing its own provinces and creating a domestic crisis.

"There is no love lost between Beijing and Pyongyang. Xi is in a tough space," said Sumpter. "He also has more experience with North Korea. Geographically speaking, his country is more at risk. By nature, Xi is going to be more cautious."

The U.S. has been toughening its talk on North Korea, with administration officials saying "the clock has run out" and "all options are on the table." Trump himself said in an interview last weekend that the U.S. will take unilateral action to end North Korea's nuclear threat unless China raises the pressure on Pyongyang.

"China has great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won't," Trump told the Financial Times. "If they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don't, it won't be good for anyone."

Greg Valliere, chief global strategist at Horizon Investments, said Trump officials are turning up the heat and have made a U.S. military strike more likely with this rhetoric. "It's clear to me it's now a live option at the Pentagon," said Valliere. He said there's possibly a 1 in 3 chance the U.S. will someday take pre-emptive action.

"The generals have made it clear a military option has big risks. There's big risks of this spinning out of control," said Valliere.

For that reason, North Korea experts see other actions as more likely, including the enlistment of China's help.

"I would say the U.S. military is treating every North Korean test as not a test but as an attempt to hit the United States and its territory. It gives you a sense of gravity of the situation. That means all the U.S. military assets are put on alert whenever North Korea does these tests," said John Park, director, Korea Working Group at the Harvard Kennedy School.

On Tuesday, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, warned about the lengthy delays and budget issues that he said are hurting the ability to improve nuclear deterrence capabilities.

Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hyten said North Korea now has the capability to deploy an intercontinental ballistic missile. North Korea also demonstrated in February that it can now deploy solid-fueled missile technology.

Park said North Korea manages to improve its missile capabilities even with the sanctions against it. He likened it to treating Pyongyang with a strong antibiotic. "We've increased the dosage on the North Korean regime to the degree where it's exhibiting traits of a super bug," he said.

Sumpter said the Trump administration's comments that every option is on the table is no different than past administrations' private comments. She said military response is an option that would be used if North Korea crossed the red line, meaning if it were capable of sending a nuclear missile to the U.S.

"Why this is such an issue now is there seems to be a sense among administration officials that they don't have a whole lot of time to find a solution to the North Korea nuclear problem. It's not just a regional problem, but a global security threat," she said. "No administration has ever taken any option off the table. The fact this language is coming so early in this administration , and it's coming from Trump is causing more people to sit up and take notice."

Park said some may view the situation as similar to 2003, when then-President George W. Bush enlisted China's help against North Korea. He said there was a view that the Chinese would only act when military action appears imminent, but things are far different now, including China's view of its place in the world. "At the time the U.S. had a lot of credibility" militarily, he said.

In 2003, China did take action against North Korea, including cutting off its oil supply.

"The Chinese claimed they had technical problems, but it was pretty immediately felt in North Korea. They are hugely dependent on China for oil and energy," said Park. "If we do see reports about that then we're seeing the Chinese play hardball."

One area where China could hurt North Korea is in its procurement of materials for its weapons program. He said North Koreans have embedded procurement agents in China, including in its embassy.

China could begin to expel North Korean diplomats. "They're the ones managing the process," he said.

Park said it's unlikely China will say much about North Korea, and its public comments may be that it is America's problem to work out, if pushed. "They do not want to be seen as caving into American pressure," he said.

Watch: Should investors worry about N. Korea



More From CNBC