China and Russia Warn U.S. About Regime Change in North Korea

As the United Nations passes new sanctions against North Korea, watered down at the behest of Russia and China, the two countries warned the United States against pursuing regime change in North Korea.

The Russian representative at the U.N. expressed concern the U.S. wasn't reaffirming "the four nos"—no regime change, no regime collapse, no accelerated reunification, and no military deployment north of the 38th parallel dividing the Korean peninsula.

"The Chinese side will never allow conflict or war on the peninsula," a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry said today.

That's all well and good, but if Russia and China are really concerned about what the U.S. might do on the Korean peninsula they should step in and offer solutions rather than admonishments.

Instead, the two major powers have largely remained on the sideline as North Korea inches closer to nuclear weapons capability, leaving the responsibility of reacting to the developments to the U.S., which Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley stressed, is ready to act alone to stop the North Korean regime if necessary.

It should not be surprising that regime change—a flawed tool fraught with negative consequences—is still on the table. It is a tool America's foreign policy makers are familiar with and return to with regularity despite its history of failure.

Over the last seventy years, the U.S. has taken on the role of world policeman. Donald Trump, who campaigned in part on questioning the wisdom of that role, has largely embraced it as president, revealing how this foreign policy status quo is ingrained and difficult to change.

The administration hopes sanctions against North Korea might at the least bring the regime back to the negotiating table. It bases this idea on the sanctions that pressured Iran into negotiating a nuclear deal. It remains unclear, however, how much those long-term sanctions influenced Iran's decision to negotiate, given the country's internal politics. Sanctions might have delayed diplomatic efforts by offering domestic hard-liners a talking point against negotiating.

Russia and China's efforts to temper the U.N sanctions further muddles the issue. They are two of five countries with veto power in the Security Council. If they are not convinced of the efficacy of sanctions they ought to kill them.

They have not killed the sanctions, because they offer the perception something is being done about the North Korea crisis. Without sanctions the U.S. could rightly ask Russia and China what, exactly, is their contribution to a solution.

The U.S. is right to ask the question anyway. Both countries have a greater interest than the U.S. in reining in North Korea, but have opted not to expose their leadership to criticism over any diplomatic failure.

The critiques will be much harsher if North Korea spirals out of control. The U.S. is comitted to defending its allies in the region, Japan and South Korea. North Korea knows it. Russia and China do, too. The Trump administration has signaled clearly ("fire and fury") the U.S. is willing to use overwhelming force to respond to any North Korean aggression.

If China and Russia fear regime change in the neighboring Korean peninsula, and they should, they can help prevent it by assuming more responsibility for North Korea—by engaging in public diplomatic efforts that would allow, and maybe even encourage, the U.S. to responsibly pull back.