US's Joseph Dunford meets Xi Jinping Andy Wong/Getty Images

Can Trump Deal with North Korea and China?

For years, Americans have misunderstood the nuclear threat from North Korea, and overestimated the importance of bilateral trade deficits with China. Now, these two issues are intersecting, and yet Donald Trump is threatening to erect new trade barriers against China just when he needs its help to rein in the Kim regime.

CAMBRIDGE – For years, Americans have misunderstood the nuclear threat from North Korea, misjudging how to address it. They have also misunderstood the bilateral trade deficits with China, overestimating their importance. Today, as President Donald Trump threatens new trade barriers against China, on which the United States must depend to help rein in an increasingly dangerous North Korea, these two issues have become closely connected. Yet US officials seem no closer to figuring them out.

The stakes obviously are much higher regarding North Korea, with US-South Korean joint military exercises this week aggravating already-high tensions. If the US and North Korea do get into a military confrontation, there is a real risk that nuclear weapons will be used. Even a conventional war would likely be catastrophic.

Trade is relevant to the North Korean nuclear challenge, because strict economic sanctions by China – potentially including a halt in oil supplies – are probably the world’s best bet for stopping the North’s nuclear program (in exchange for certain security guarantees from the US). Trump may well understand this. But he apparently believes that he can use US trade with China as a bargaining chip to secure its help in dealing with North Korea. This is the wrong approach.

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