Behind the bluster, North Korea and the US angle for peace
Can China help Washington and Pyongyang back down without losing face?
SOTARO SUZUKI and TSUYOSHI NAGASAWA, Nikkei staff writers
SEOUL/WASHINGTON Behind the bluster and saber rattling, both the U.S. and North Korea appear keen to avoid an all-out war without losing face. With China attempting to play the role of peacemaker, the three countries have become embroiled in a tangle of three-way diplomatic maneuvering.
Pyongyang has not been shy about showing off -- or attempting to show off -- its attacking capabilities. A failed ballistic missile launch occurred on the morning of April 16 in North Korea's eastern region, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff of South Korea's military. The launch coincided with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence's arrival in South Korea later that day and is widely seen as an attempt at intimidation. Also on April 16, China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson exchanged views on the situation on the Korean Peninsula via phone, according to China's official Xinhua News Agency.
Speaking at a joint news conference with acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo-ahn in Seoul on April 17, Pence said "all options are on the table" and "the era of strategic patience is over." He further said, "The world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new President [Donald Trump] in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan. ... North Korea would do well not to test his resolve."
Before meeting with Hwang, the vice president visited the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, where he said the U.S. and South Korea share an "ironclad and immutable alliance."
On April 18, Pence flew to Tokyo to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. "We appreciate the challenging time in which the people of Japan live with increasing provocation across the Sea of Japan," Pence said before the meeting. "We are with you 100%."
The next day he visited the U.S. Navy's sole forward-based aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, in Yokosuka, outside of Tokyo. Speaking aboard the carrier, Pence called North Korea "the most dangerous and urgent threat to the peace and security of the Asia-Pacific."
Yet amid the military posturing on both sides, North Korea has begun laying the groundwork for dialogue with the U.S., while Washington appears to have decided against aiming for regime change, the scenario Pyongyang most fears.
STRONG WORDS On April 15 -- the day before the failed missile launch -- Pyongyang marked the 105th anniversary of the birth of the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung, with a massive military parade that included a purportedly new type of intercontinental ballistic missile.
Speaking at the event, Choe Ryong Hae, vice chairman of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, said the country would retaliate instantly against any U.S. provocations. "We will respond to an all-out war with an all-out war and a nuclear war with our style of a nuclear attack." North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, clad in a black suit, observed the parade but did not give a speech.
This was the first massive military parade since October 2015, when North Korea commemorated the 70th anniversary of the ruling party. A South Korean expert on North Korea pointed out that this parade featured fewer conventional weapons, such as tanks, than previous occasions and focused more on displaying missile technology.
The previously unknown type of missile shown at the parade is believed to be larger than the KN-08 ICBM, which has a range of over 9,000km. This missile may have been a mock-up, but South Korean military sources believe it is a new ICBM.
Two other new missiles were also on display: the KN-11, a submarine-launched ballistic missile, and its land-based variant, the KN-15. This latter type was fired into the Sea of Japan in February. Professor Yang Moo-jin of South Korea's Kyungnam University says North Korea displayed six SLBMs, which suggests that it may deploy them in the near future.
A group of soldiers wearing white protective suits also drew attention. South Korean media reported that they are part of a biological and chemical weapons unit that took part in the parade for the first time.
A U.S. strike group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson is approaching the waters near the Korean Peninsula. The Trump administration is hoping that the attacking capabilities of carrier-based aircraft and the cruise missiles on accompanying cruisers will serve as a major deterrent to North Korea's military provocations. At the same time, several U.S. media outlets reported in mid-April that the administration has decided against overthrowing the North Korean leadership, a sign the U.S. is looking for ways to de-escalate the situation.
A TEMPORARY TRUCE Where does all this leave China? For now, the country is more than willing to work with Washington, as a possible military clash between the U.S. and North Korea would result in Beijing losing its influence over Pyongyang. President Xi Jinping, in a telephone conversation with Trump on April 12, said China "advocates resolving problems through peaceful means," an expression the country had not used before. Diplomatic sources interpret Xi's words as an indication that China is ready to accept Washington's request to put greater pressure on North Korea, including through economic sanctions, at least to an extent.
China argues that it is abiding by the coal import restrictions laid out in a U.N. Security Council resolution, saying its coal imports from North Korea in the first three months of 2017 fell 51.6% on the year.
South Korean media, moreover, say China did not send a delegation to the recent military parade, a sign that Beijing may be trying to keep a political distance from North Korea.
Likely in return for cooperation on North Korea, Trump has backpedaled on his election pledge to be "tough" on China, at least for the moment. The latest U.S. report on international exchange rate policies, released on April 14, did not name China as a currency manipulator, something Trump had repeatedly threatened to do.
TWO APPROACHES On April 13, North Korean state-run media reported on an assassination drill by special operation forces. The media said Kim praised combatants as "true soldiers who thrust a dagger into the enemy's vital points."
But there are signs that North Korea intends to respond to the growing U.S. pressure both with soft as well as hard tactics. The Supreme People's Assembly, held in Pyongyang on April 11, reinstated its diplomatic commission after almost two decades, a move intended to show the country is ready to hold talks with the outside world. Ri Su Yong, vice chairman of the ruling party's central committee, heads the commission. Other members include vice foreign minister Kim Kye Gwan, a veteran negotiator with the U.S. who is also the chief delegate to the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program.
Aiming to preserving the Kim dynasty, North Korea's top diplomatic goal is direct talks with the U.S. The lineup of the diplomatic commission underscores Pyongyang's desire for dialogue over confrontation.
The recent escalation in tensions began after North Korea fired four ballistic missiles simultaneously into the Sea of Japan in early March, with three of them falling into Japan's exclusive economic zone. State-run Korean Central News Agency on March 7 boasted that the launch was an exercise to prepare for an attack on U.S. forces in Japan. According to diplomatic sources, this touched a raw nerve and led the U.S. to determine that Pyongyang had "crossed the line."
Nikkei staff writers Oki Nagai in Beijing, Hiroshi Minegishi and Kenichi Yamada in Seoul contributed to this report.