What Steve Bannon Got Wrong About Sino-N. Korea Relations on ’60 Minutes’

The United States should pressure China to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program, according to Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist and current Breitbart head.

“The solution to Korea runs through Beijing and we have to engage Beijing,” Bannon said in a Sept. 10 interview on 60 Minutes. North Korea is “a client state of China,” he added.

Not so fast, Bannon. In 2000, Sino-North Korean relations turned quite cordial after a secret meeting between Chinese Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin and Kim Jung-il. The two leaders were also known to hug each other in a brotherly fashion at meetings. High-ranking Chinese officials, including Jiang faction elites Zhou Yongkang (disgraced security czar) and Liu Yunshan (current Politburo Standing Committee member), made regular diplomatic trips to North Korea.

But North Korea ceased to be a “client state of China,” as Bannon put it, when Xi Jinping took over as Party leader in 2012.

Xi openly snubs Kim: Xi has spent the last five years eliminating the Jiang political faction and consolidating his control over the Communist Party, dissolving any Sino-North Korean relations Jiang had cultivated. The relationship is now visibly in deep freeze —

  • Xi Jinping has not visited North Korea since taking office, nor has he welcomed incumbent leader Kim Jong Un to China.
  • Xi invited then South Korean leader Park Geun-hye to his grand parade in 2015, but not Kim. That same year, Xi refused to attend a scheduled Beijing performance by North Korea’s state-approved girl pop band, a gesture which infuriated Kim and led him to cancel the concert.
  • China suspended all coal imports from North Korea this February.
  • China voted in support of tough UN Security Council sanctions against the Kim regime.
  • China sent no congratulatory messages to North Korea for its regime’s 69th anniversary this month.
  • Xi has disdain for Kim, according to Max Baucus, former US ambassador to China, and former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd.

Our take: Steve Bannon is correct to identify China as key to defusing the North Korean nuclear crisis, but he needs to hone his target more precisely, i.e. the Jiang political faction. Leveraging U.S. economic power to force the Xi leadership to rein in Kim Jong Un is not a prescription to fix the problem when Xi, up to this point, has been taking political and financial action against Kim.

To effectively use China against Kim, the U.S. must first understand the internal political struggle within the Chinese Communist Party and identify the Jiang elements within the Party giving political and financial support to the Kim regime. Targeting the Jiang faction with economic leverage, as opposed to a blanket targeting of “China” would be a more focused and effective tactic in cutting the life support Kim needs to keep his regime afloat.

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