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China's road to peace on the Korean peninsula

BEIJING • A new crisis is brewing on the Korean Peninsula. In mid-February, North Korea conducted an intermediate-range ballistic missile test. On March 1, the United States and South Korea began a joint military exercise that is unprecedented in scale and intensity.

These military drills will run until the end of next month, and will include a significant number of ground, air, and naval forces from both countries, including strategic assets. And, despite objections from Russia and China, the US is accelerating its deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) anti-missile system in South Korea.

On the same day that the US and South Korea began their military drills, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspected the headquarters of Large Combined Unit 966 of the Korean People's Army. Five days later, the North launched four ballistic missiles, one of which reportedly landed within 322km of Japan's coastline. The tests have led most experts to believe that North Korea has significantly expanded its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities and that by 2020, it may be able to affix miniaturised nuclear warheads onto long-range missiles capable of reaching the continental United States.

Talks in New York between a North Korean delegation and former senior US officials had originally been planned for this month. But the meeting was cancelled late last month, when the US State Department refused to issue visas for North Korean diplomats, perpetuating a lack of communication that has only compounded the risks of the current standoff.

US President Donald Trump has apparently decided to increase the pressure on North Korea, rather than make good on his campaign rhetoric and speak directly with Mr Kim. Mr Trump's National Security Council is reportedly conducting an in-depth review of US policy towards North Korea and considering a number of policy options, ranging from pre-emptive strikes on North Korean nuclear facilities to "soft" regime change through the imposition of harsher sanctions.

Even if Mr Trump were willing to hold one-on-one talks with North Korea, his administration clearly is not ready to do so, because it lacks both a coherent policy and a credible policy-making operation. The Trump White House remains mired in dysfunction, as evidenced not only by Mr Michael Flynn's sudden ouster as national security adviser, but also by the scarcity of senior appointments to oversee Asia-Pacific affairs at the Departments of State and Defence.

The re-emergence of Cold War-like security blocs in North-east Asia would only exacerbate regional hostilities. To avoid that outcome, China is calling on all parties to stop and think. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently put it, the US and North Korea are like "two accelerating trains coming towards each other, with neither side willing to give way".

Despite this executive-branch policy vacuum, the US government views North Korea's recent missile tests as a major threat. Many congressmen and senior military officials are now calling for a tougher response, which could include restoring the Kim regime to a list of state sponsors of terrorism, and using US Special Forces to launch surgical strikes. But such actions would only exacerbate the regime's sense of insecurity.

The US and South Korean intelligence communities believe that North Korea has 10 to 16 nuclear weapons and more than 1,000 ballistic missiles, making it practically impossible to disable the North Korean threat militarily without inflicting serious damage on the US and its allies. And now that South Korean President Park Geun Hye has been impeached and formally removed from office, South Korea's government will be in no position to pursue new policy options for a number of months.

Meanwhile, China's role on the Korean Peninsula is becoming more complicated. On the one hand, China has voiced opposition to North Korea's missile tests and suspended coal imports from the North under a United Nations Security Council resolution. In response, North Korean state media went so far as to criticise China implicitly for "dancing to the tune of the US".

On the other hand, China also regards the new Thaad system in South Korea as a serious strategic threat. Chinese leaders worry that Thaad's X-band radar will negate China's second-strike nuclear capacity, and that the system could be integrated with US and Japanese facilities to create a web covering all of North-east Asia. Indeed, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is already pushing ahead with Thaad deployment in Japan.

Last November, South Korea and Japan signed a pact to share military intelligence. But as the two US allies, who were once bitter enemies, improve their bilateral security relationship, China and Russia both fear that a close US-Japan-South Korea alliance could emerge as the equivalent of a mini-Nato to their east.

The re-emergence of Cold War-like security blocs in North-east Asia would only exacerbate regional hostilities. To avoid that outcome, China is calling on all parties to stop and think. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently put it, the US and North Korea are like "two accelerating trains coming towards each other, with neither side willing to give way".

Mr Wang has met with North Korean Vice-Foreign Minister Ri Kil Song in Beijing, and he will meet with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on saturday, in an effort to coordinate a first meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Mr Trump. Needless to say, resolving the North Korean nuclear issue will be a priority at that summit.

China, for its part, has proposed a two-prong approach. First, North Korea stops its nuclear and missile tests, while the US and South Korea halt their joint large-scale military exercises. Second, all parties involved return to the negotiating table, with the parallel goals of denuclearising the Korean Peninsula and concluding a peace accord to replace the 60-year-old Korean War Armistice Agreement. Parties should, in the meantime, take note of former South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young Kwan's proposal that the Thaad system be removed after North Korea abandons its nuclear programme.

Strategic mistrust across North-east Asia will only worsen the US and China's already testy relationship. The nightmare scenario of a violent conflict on the Korean Peninsula demands that cooler heads prevail.

PROJECT SYNDICATE


  • The writer is a research fellow at the Charhar Institute in Beijing, an adjunct fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China and a member of the China National Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2017, with the headline 'China's road to peace on the Korean peninsula'. Print Edition | Subscribe