US pressed to pursue deal to freeze North Korea missile tests

This undated photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on May 30, shows the test-firing of a ballistic missile at an undisclosed location in North Korea.
This undated photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on May 30, shows the test-firing of a ballistic missile at an undisclosed location in North Korea. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The Trump administration has come under growing pressure to open negotiations on a temporary freeze on North Korea's nuclear and missile tests in return for reducing the US military footprint in the Korean peninsula, according to American officials and foreign diplomats.

Versions of the proposal, floated by Beijing for several months, have been revived several times this week, first by South Korea's newly installed president and then by China's foreign minister and one of its top military officials in talks on Wednesday (June 21) with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis.

But White House officials say they are not interested in any proposal that would require the United States to lift military or economic pressure on the North, even in return for a moratorium on tests.

Instead, Tillerson and Mattis publicly pressed the Chinese to exert more diplomatic and economic pressure on Pyongyang, though President Donald Trump indicated on Twitter on Tuesday (June 20) that he had just about given up on obtaining help from the Chinese.

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"China understands that the United States regards North Korea as our top security threat," Tillerson told reporters at a news conference after meetings with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi and General Fang Fenghui, in the first security dialogue with Beijing conducted by the Trump administration.

"We reiterated to China that they have a diplomatic responsibility to exert much greater economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime if they want to prevent further escalation in the region."

But like his predecessors, Trump is gradually learning that for all its talk about cooperation, China is deeply reluctant to take any measures that could seriously destabilise the North Korean government, for fear the country might collapse or be absorbed by the South.

So China's strategy has been to buy time - and preserve the status quo - with talks that may be linked to some kind of testing freeze.

They may now have a new advocate of that approach, President Moon Jae In of South Korea, who was elected on a platform pledging resumed engagement with the North.

On Tuesday, he embraced a similar idea, telling CBS News in an interview that a freeze could be a way station to a second phase of talks that would "achieve the complete dismantling of North Korea's nuclear programme."

In an interview broadcast on Wednesday, the North Korean ambassador to India, Kye Chun Yong, said his country was willing to consider a moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile tests if the United States and South Korea stopped their annual joint military exercises.

"Under certain circumstances, we are willing to talk in terms of freezing nuclear testing or missile testing,"  the ambassador said, speaking in English.

"For instance, if the American side completely stops big, large-scale military exercises temporarily or permanently, then we will also temporarily stop. Let's talk about how to solve the Korean issue peacefully."

But to US officials, a freeze is a trap that previous administrations have stepped into. The Clinton administration tried a freeze in 1994 that the North Koreans first cheated on and then openly discarded early in the administration of President George W. Bush.

At the end of Bush's term, a second such freeze and partial dismantlement of a nuclear reactor was negotiated, only to be abandoned by the North Koreans as soon as President Barack Obama entered office.

Tillerson himself rejected the idea of such a negotiated freeze when he visited South Korea early this year, saying that it would simply enshrine "a comprehensive set of capabilities" that North Korea has already developed, a reference to its arsenal of a dozen or more nuclear weapons and a growing fleet of short- and medium-range missiles that can hit US troops in the region, along with South Korea and Japan.

But the idea has been embraced by some longtime Korea experts, including former defence secretary William Perry, who say that it is the only way to buy some time before North Korea successfully tests an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States.

All the other options available to the United States have major drawbacks. They include secondary sanctions on Chinese banks and companies doing business with North Korea; a military strike; or simple acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear power.

Secondary sanctions could ignite a trade war. Even a limited military strike could lead North Korea to attack Seoul with conventional weapons, with potentially catastrophic results. And few in the US government are ready to accept North Korea as an established nuclear power.

Without a clear alternative, the Trump administration remains committed to urging China to crack down on Pyongyang. Some 90 per cent of North Korea's trade is with China. And although China recently banned imports of North Korean coal, overall trade between the two countries has actually been increasing.

Tillerson said countries around the world were cracking down on activities North Korea uses to fund its weapons programmes, "and we hope China will do their part as well".

Mattis vowed to "continue to take necessary measures to defend ourselves and our allies".