This article is reprinted with permission from Stratfor Worldview.

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  • Two years ago, Kim Jong Un's nuclear gamble seemed to have paid off by bringing the United States to the negotiating table; now, the North Korean leader faces a dilemma.
  • Kim can denuclearize, as demanded by the United States, or stick with his hard-won nuclear and missile potential and learn to accept China's growing control over North Korea.
  • It's a stark and narrow choice, the result of what now seems to be Kim's strategic, perhaps fateful, mistake to abandon his father's relative restraint in nuclear and missile development.

There is a long-standing, somewhat cliched view in the community of North Korea experts that Pyongyang always holds the strategic initiative when dealing with the United States. While it may well have been the case in the past, North Korea may no longer have much freedom of action. Pyongyang finds itself in an unenviable position facing a stark and narrow choice: Start real denuclearization as demanded by the United States and lose much, or even all, of its hard-won nuclear and missile potential, or cling to the nukes and accept its rising dependence on China, with existential risks for North Korea's sovereignty.

The atmosphere at the Workers' Party plenary meeting in late December 2019, during which President Kim Jong Un presented a somber assessment of the current situation, contrasted sharply with the triumphant mood in late 2017 when the North Korean leader declared the "completion" of his country's nuclear forces after successful tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and a hydrogen bomb. In 2017, Kim seemed a winner vis-à-vis the United States. Now it is becoming clear that he made a strategic, perhaps fateful mistake by ordering ICBM and thermonuclear tests that year.

Kim's High-Stakes Gamble

Two years after Kim's victorious statements, no deal with the United States has been achieved. North Korea remains under heavy sanctions, while Pyongyang's dependence on China, its only significant economic lifeline, is growing dangerously. What went wrong? North Korea's young leader miscalculated the United States. Kim expected Washington would sue for peace after North Korea, in 2017, successfully fired intermediate-range (Hwasong-12) and intercontinental (Hwasong-14 and -15) ballistic missiles while detonating what might have been a thermonuclear device. However, the effect was the opposite of what Kim apparently anticipated. The United States was shocked to find out its mainland was now vulnerable to North Korean missiles, but instead of surrendering on Kim's terms, Washington launched its "maximum pressure" campaign, which is still in force.

In a sense, in 2017 North Korea repeated the fatal mistake Japan committed in 1941 by attacking Pearl Harbor. Rather than forcing the Americans into a panicked retreat from Asia, the shock of Pearl Harbor jolted the United States into an all-out war against Japan. The United States eventually might have tolerated a North Korea with a limited nuclear arsenal and medium-range missiles, but it would never accept the North with a thermonuclear-armed ICBM capable of reaching the American mainland. Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, probably understood this, which explains his relative restraint in nuclear and missile development. A limited nuclear capability that kept Japan and South Korea within range was just enough for deterrence purposes. But, unlike his risk-averse father, the younger Kim decided to take a high-stakes gamble by executing the ICBM and thermonuclear breakout. It is unlikely that any U.S. administration, even such an unorthodox one as Donald Trump's, would accept a deal with North Korea that leaves Pyongyang with the capability to produce ICBMs and thermonuclear warheads. That is why the United States will keep pressing for the verified dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear-missile complex, something unacceptable to Pyongyang.

America's maximum pressure campaign makes it essentially impossible for North Korea to interact economically with the outside world, except with China. In March 2018, when making his first trip to Beijing with a show of humble deference to President Xi Jinping, Kim apparently hoped dependence on China would not last long amid his expectations of a deal with Trump. A deal is still not in sight. The absence of a deal means the United States and its allies, including South Korea and Japan, will preserve the harsh sanctions regime that bans almost all types of economic contact with Pyongyang. That leaves North Korea at the mercy of China. By 2019, China's proportion of the North's overall external trade rose to 92 percent; in 2001, by contrast, China accounted for just 17 percent of North Korea's foreign trade. Back then, Tokyo was Pyongyang's top economic partner, accounting for 30 percent of the North's trade. Add to that the "informal" economic links that are taking place across the 1408-kilometer (880-mile) border that North Korea shares with China and in the Yellow Sea, where smuggling and other shadowy activities are rampant.

Apart from allowing commerce with the North, Beijing provides direct assistance to Pyongyang by continuing oil deliveries through a cross-border pipeline and sending food aid, for example. In 2019, China reportedly donated 1 million tons of rice and corn to North Korea. Considering that the North's domestic grain production is in the range of 5 million to 6 million tons a year, China's aid can keep North Korea from experiencing a mass famine, which is an ever-present menace in a drought- and flood-prone country with archaic agriculture. Sending Chinese tourists to the North is another form of Beijing's support for Pyongyang. By some estimates, around 350,000 Chinese visitors traveled to North Korea in 2019, generating some $175 million in revenue for Pyongyang. In a nutshell, without Chinese trade and economic assistance, North Korea would be unable to function as an industrial economy.

Pyongyang is very much aware of its growing reliance on China, with North Korean propaganda lately calling for "eliminating import sickness and dependence on others." Yet, North Korea's geo-economic dependence on China will only deepen, as there are no realistic alternative partners that Pyongyang can turn to in order to balance Beijing. Even though South Korea is led by the leftist government of President Moon Jae In, who aspires to expand humanitarian and economic contacts with the North, Seoul has to abide by the discipline of its alliance with the United States, which prohibits any sanctions relief for the North until substantial progress on denuclearization occurs. To make matters worse, Moon's term expires in 2022 and he could be replaced by a conservative, anti-North politician.

Likewise, Japan, another potential alternative for the North, is not going to rescue Pyongyang until Washington is happy with Kim's behavior. Besides, Japan has its own disputes with North Korea, particularly the unresolved issue of the fate of Japanese citizens whom Pyongyang kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s. Russia will not be of much help, either. Even though Russian President Vladimir Putin had a polite summit with Kim in Vladivostok in April 2019, Moscow is not going to spend its limited resources on North Korea. Putin's main game is in Europe and the Middle East, with the Kremlin tacitly acknowledging that the Korean Peninsula belongs to China's sphere of influence.

China's Tightening Grip Over Pyongyang

Historically, North Korea has thrived by playing its suitors and great power patrons against one another. During the Cold War, it exploited the rivalry between Moscow and Beijing while getting generous assistance from both. After the Cold War, Pyongyang positioned itself to take advantage of the intensifying competition among China, the United States, South Korea and Japan over the geopolitical future of the Korean Peninsula. Kim Jong Il was quite good at that complex multiplayer game, engaging in a diplomatic dance with each power that had a stake in North Korea while incrementally advancing the North's nuclear capability. His heir, Kim Jong Un, apparently did not have the patience for this kind of long-term strategic diplomacy, choosing instead to make one powerful move with ICBMs. The Hwasong firings duly impressed the world, but they destroyed Kim Jong Il's careful diplomatic game, eliminating the prospects for rapprochement with the United States, South Korea and Japan.

North Korea's almost absolute dependence on China for its economic survival will inevitably shrink Pyongyang's foreign policy independence. The revelatory moment, which may have illustrated the extent of China's leverage over North Korea, came last month when Pyongyang threatened the United States with an unwelcome "Christmas gift," which many observers took as a sign of an imminent long-range missile launch. Following Pyongyang's threats, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, made an unscheduled visit to Beijing. The substance of his talks remains unknown, but immediately after his appearance in Beijing, North Korea quickly backed off its threat, saying that a provocative test "like a satellite launch, firing an ICBM or detonating a nuclear weapon" was unlikely, because those acts are red lines for China and Russia. It would be logical to assume Biegun asked China to exercise its influence over North Korea to get it to refrain from an escalation, and Beijing obliged, probably in exchange for a softer U.S. stance in the ongoing trade negotiations.

The U.S.-led sanctions on North Korea are helping China tighten its geo-economic grip over the North, making it the only country that still has substantial economic interactions with North Korea. The longer the denuclearization deadlock continues — that is, the longer sanctions are in place — the more control Beijing has over Pyongyang. Kim will still have his nuclear weapons, but they will be of little use in dealing with China should Beijing decide to punish Pyongyang economically for any disobedience or disrespect. Eventually, North Korea could become a nuclear-armed protectorate of China. In this case, the North's nuclear weapons will not count for much, because the United States will view Beijing as being in control of North Korea's foreign policy. North Korea's nukes will be seen as an extension of China's strategic domain. North Korea has always prided itself on being among the few countries in the world that possess genuine, rather than nominal, sovereignty. Ironically, by acquiring powerful nuclear weapons, Kim put himself into a strategic trap where keeping North Korea's full sovereignty will become increasingly difficult.

China's increasing control over North Korea may not be the worst outcome for the United States, at least in the short term. China currently is not interested in destabilizing the security situation in Northeast Asia and it also has a vital stake in preventing a further deterioration in its relations with the United States. Thus, Beijing can be expected to make sure that Pyongyang does not act too provocatively. That said, Kim is not someone who will easily accept any outside control. He can still make surprises.