The United States believes China can do more to intensify pressure on North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, though the impact of further isolation on Kim Jong Un's nuclear ambitions is unclear, a top CIA official for East Asia said on Wednesday.
Michael Collins, the deputy assistant director of the CIA's East Asia Mission Center, said China by all public accounts is enforcing international sanctions against North Korea, but noted Beijing's tact in excluding key exports from their sanctions list and agreeing to limits on trade rather than an all-out ban.
"It's clear the Chinese want to maintain influence with this regime and are probably worried about undercutting that if they pull all of their support away from North Korea," Collins said at an intelligence conference organized by the CIA at George Washington University. "Their challenge, in my view, is to … assess the extent of support they provide to North Korea and to what extent that encourages North Korean behavior."
Beijing accounts for 90 percent of Pyongyang's trade, making its cooperation critical to enforcing U.S.-backed sanctions aimed at curbing the regime's nuclear activities.
Though China last month began limiting energy supplies to the North under new United Nations sanctions, the restrictions do not apply to crude oil, which accounts for the largest share of energy exports to Pyongyang. North Korea imports all of its oil, primarily from China, providing Beijing with substantial leverage to cutoff a lifeline to the regime.
The Trump administration has pressed for tougher measures by China against the North. In a trip to Beijing this past weekend, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressed the issue with top officials and signaled the United States is "gaining the support of the Chinese."
Collins said part of China's reluctance to completely isolate North Korea is due to President Xi Jinping's desire for North Korea to remain as a buffer state to insulate Beijing from American influence.
Though Collins said North Korea poses the most immediate national security threat to the United States and its Pacific allies, he warned the rise of China in East Asia represents "the most pressing, serious long-term strategic challenge."
Yong Suk Lee, the deputy assistant director of the CIA's Korea Mission Center, said China holds a cynical view of American influence in the Pacific, which drives its "main strategic goal" of frustrating the United States by maintaining "permanent division of the Korean Peninsula."
Collins, echoing a similar point, said while China has publicly supported denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, Beijing is driven primarily by its desire for regional stability.
"China's calculation as to what to do on North Korea is not determined solely, if at all, by North Korean behavior," Collins said. "It's that they worry what will happen in response to North Korean behavior."
"My hope is that the analysts in China who are looking at North Korea and the region … realize, ‘Our support to North Korea is actually creating more threats to stability in East Asia than would come from us isolating North Korea,'" he continued. "Increasingly, North Korea's behavior is bringing about problems for China in East Asia that are certainly not in China's interest."
Even so, Collins said the question remains as to whether China can change North Korea's calculus.