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Trump's China threats could cause his North Korea policy to 'blow up in his face'

Key Points
  • U.S. President Donald Trump in a Sunday Twitter post announced a hike in tariffs on Chinese goods. China, in turn, is said to be considering skipping this week's negotiations.
  • According to one expert, the downturn in U.S.-China relations may not bode well for Trump's denuclearization dialogue with Pyongyang.
  • "Donald Trump today tweeting out about increasing tariffs and things of that nature, he needs to be a little careful because his North Korea policy could blow up in his face," said Harry Kazianis, the director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest.
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A US-North Korea deal has to be a 'phased denuclearization': Expert

The ongoing U.S.-China trade talks appeared to turn sour when President Donald Trump on Sunday announced a tariff hike on Chinese goods. China, in turn, is said to be considering skipping this week's planned negotiations.

According to the director of Korean Studies at think tank the Center for the National Interest, that recent downturn in Washington-Beijing relations may not bode well for Trump's denuclearization dialogue with North Korea.

"Donald Trump today tweeting out about increasing tariffs and things of that nature, he needs to be a little careful because his North Korea policy could blow up in his face," Harry Kazianis told CNBC's "Squawk Box Asia" on Monday.

On Sunday, North Korean state media showed its leader Kim Jong Un overseeing live firing drills of rocket launchers and short-range missiles. This comes two months after denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang collapsed in Hanoi. Negotiations have been in a "lull state" since.

The Trump administration has typically taken a "maximum pressure" strategy toward Pyongyang, which consists of military threats, diplomatic actions and harsh tariffs.

However, this policy was "always" ultimately enforced by Beijing and not Washington, according to Kazianis.

"Think about it this way: 90% of North Korea's exports go to China," he added.

That all means that China can use its North Korean ties as a form of leverage over Washington.

If the U.S.-China trade deal falls apart, Beijing can use North Korea "as a weapon against the United States," Kazianis said. "(China) could end maximum pressure in days by just opening up the border."

U.S. President Donald Trump walks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during the U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi on Feb. 28, 2019.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

Pyongyang's weapons testing over the weekend was Kim's attempt to remind the U.S. that its military capabilities "will keep growing — essentially by the hour," Kazianis said.

North Korea is still continuing to build ballistic missiles, he added. "Just because they're not testing them in the sky doesn't mean they're not testing them in their laboratory, that their scientists aren't working at it."

"So what Kim is trying to say to us is: 'Look, if you're not going to make a deal, my weapons are just going to get better and it's better to make a deal now,'" Kazianis explained.

A 'phased denuclearization' required

According to Kazianis, the "only way" for Washington to strike a denuclearization deal with Pyongyang is to take a gradual step-by-step approach.

"The only way to do this is a phased denuclearization, where the North Koreans make a concession, and we make a matching concession," Kazianis said.

"I think the Trump administration would be quite foolish to keep going after this so-called big deal where the North Koreans basically give up all their nuclear weapons, and then when that's over, we remove the sanctions," he added. "I don't think that'll work."