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What China Can Do To Change North Korea


President Donald Trump said today that the United States would respond, quote, "very strongly" to the growing nuclear threat from North Korea. The president has said the path to pressuring the regime there leads through China. But those plans seem to be faltering at this point. On Wednesday, Trump tweeted, quote, "so much for China working with us, but we had to give it a try," exclamation point. Later this week, the president will get the chance to deliver that criticism face-to-face, when he meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Germany. We are joined now by David Pressman. He represented the U.S. on the U.N. Security Council under President Obama and led U.S. negotiations with China over North Korea's nuclear activities. Ambassador Pressman, welcome to the program.

DAVID PRESSMAN: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: Why hasn't China been willing to put more pressure on North Korea?

PRESSMAN: Well, China has taken the strategic calculus that they haven't had to. I mean, let's remember that currently in place on North Korea is the most robust package of sanctions against a country since the old days, when the Security Council used to place all-out embargoes on countries.

And China has systematically used exceptions within the existing sanctions regime to continue to do business with North Korea. And until China feels the heat from the United States and others and gets onboard with enforcement, we're not going to see a change on the ground.

MARTIN: So I hear you saying that all the sanctions that have been in place over the years on the North don't really make a difference unless China stops interfering. So all of that has been for naught?

PRESSMAN: Well, if the question is, do more sanctions alone work, clearly the answer is no. And I think that the response to the situation has got to be a response similar to what the Obama administration led in the context of Iran, which is a global effort to rally the world to actually enforce sanctions that are in place. So absolutely, I think it's a fair response. I think it's an appropriate response for the Security Council to adopt even tougher sanctions.

But remember, when the Security Council adopts a sanctions regime, it's a piece of paper. It needs to be implemented. And you haven't seen to date the kind of multilateral effort that really is required to see sanctions enforced. And so I hope that the administration will take the lead in doing so. I'm not at all clear what the president's tweets that you referenced earlier mean. I think the message to the Chinese needs to be a lot clearer than it is - and including the actions by the Treasury Department with respect to targeting Chinese financial institutions that are continuing to do business with North Korea, as we did in the context of Iran.

MARTIN: Lastly, what do you think the Trump administration can achieve that the Obama administration, then, could not in terms of getting China on board?

PRESSMAN: Well, I think that it is a further ratcheting up of pressure. There is no question that the testing of a intercontinental ballistic missile takes this to an entirely new level. And no civilized country in the world can tolerate North Korea acting in the way it does or having the capacities that it's developing. So the Trump administration is going to need to be prepared to impose costs upon Beijing that have not yet been imposed upon Beijing to get them to act. And I think that includes secondary sanctions.

Remember, in the context of Iran, Iran was already isolated, largely, from the global financial system. So it's a lot tougher for the U.S. and other countries to target Chinese financial institutions that are so deeply embedded, indeed, in our own commerce.

MARTIN: Foreign policy experts have suggested that the only real realistic option is to just accept North Korea as a nuclear power. Do you buy that?

PRESSMAN: No, I don't buy that. I think that, you know, we, the United States, cannot allow a man who is as dangerous and deranged as Kim Jong-un to continue to have a nuclear capacity. I mean, this is - there is no country in the world that regularly threatens to use nuclear weapons against the United States. And it's not something that we should tolerate.

MARTIN: David Pressman, former deputy to the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. He is now a partner at the law firm of Boies, Schiller and Flexner. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.