As the North Korea nuclear crisis drags on without a solution, it is natural that the US new administration tries to seek a breakthrough. However, Washington needs to see clearly the crux of the issue.
The issue appears to be simple: That Pyongyang is determined to develop nuclear weapon as well as medium and long-ranged missiles. And the solution shouldn't be difficult. Under certain logic, China should exert more pressure on the North to force it to accept Beijing's request: Pyongyang abandoning its nuclear program, while the country is saved.
But the Korean Peninsula and the whole Northeast Asia have been entangled in complicated interests. Put aside Pyongyang, the three countries of China, Japan and South Korea are also stuck in deep contradictions with cold relationships with each other.
The US must bear the major responsibilities for the mess in Northeast Asia, as it has buried too much strategic distrust in the region. For North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambition voluntarily, it must be convinced the major powers can collectively guarantee its security. But Pyongyang now trusts nothing but nuclear weapons. Despite rounds of sanctions, as long as the regime can hang on, it is unlikely to surrender.
Before Trump, each US administration generally followed the path of escalating sanctions and military threats over Pyongyang while strengthening security commitments to Seoul. Washington has never tried to seriously communicate with Pyongyang and urge it to abandon its nuclear program by relieving Pyongyang's security anxiety.
When the old strategy doesn't work, Washington blames China for not cooperating with it. China in fact has imposed very stringent sanctions against North Korea. The accusations are used to defend Washington's failed policy.
Washington's options to tackle Pyongyang are very limited. Piling more sanctions on North Korea could only produce less and less desired effect. There is little room to expand the use of sanction leverage. If the US resorts to military approach, even without consideration of the reactions of China and Russia, South Korea is very likely to be the first one to break. The top commitment Washington has made to Seoul is security. But it's very likely an armed strike on Pyongyang will cause a large-scale military retaliation of it against Seoul, thus Washington's authority will be undermined.
If the US really wants to solve the North Korean nuclear problem, it should work to reduce divergences and foster consensus among relevant countries. It needs to open up communication channels with Pyongyang so as to gain some maneuvering room.
China has a bottom line. It will safeguard the security and stability of its Northeast area at all costs. If Washington is serious in strengthening cooperation with Beijing, its policy shouldn't be against Beijing's concerns.