August 10, 2017 10:00 am JST

China wants to play peacemaker for US-North Korea

Beijing holds out hope for talks even as Pyongyang is flouts its warnings

KIM JAEWON, Nikkei staff writer

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right, meets his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho in Manila on the same day. © Reuters

MANILA The relationship between China and North Korea is not quite as special as it once was. Chinese President Xi Jinping has often referred to their "blood ties," forged when the two sides fought against the U.S. in the Korean War. More recently, Beijing has repeatedly defended Pyongyang against pressure, protecting the rogue nation almost as if it were a wayward younger brother.

But it is a different story now. On Aug. 5, the 15-member United Nations Security Council -- which includes China -- voted unanimously to adopt Resolution 2371, banning North Korea from selling coal, iron, iron ore, seafood, lead and lead ore to other countries. The resolution is expected to cut the country's $3 billion annual export revenue by a third.

China played a key role in imposing the toughest sanctions yet against Pyongyang, which came after North Korea conducted two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July. China's warnings did not stop there. Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho that Pyongyang's provocations are reaching "the tipping point" when the two met in Manila on Aug. 6, on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum.

Yet Pyongyang shows no sign of changing its ways. It vowed in a statement on Aug. 7 to exact a "thousandfold" revenge against the U.S. for spearheading the U.N. resolution. North Korea also slammed other members of the Security Council for "raising tensions on the Korean Peninsula and threatening peace and security in the region."

In his speech at the forum in the Philippine capital, Foreign Minister Ri went further, saying the U.S. is the cause of the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. He also said North Korea is developing a nuclear arsenal because, historically, only nuclear-armed countries have been safe from American military invasion.

The forum brought together 27 countries to discuss security issues, including the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and North and South Korea, along with the 10 members of ASEAN. Ri met his counterparts from China, Russia, South Korea and the Philippines, but failed to make broader diplomatic overtures as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged a "chorus of condemnation" against North Korea.

CAN WE TALK? At the same time, Tillerson opened the door for dialogue with Pyongyang on the condition that it stops testing long-range missiles. "The best signal that North Korea could give us that they're prepared to talk would be to stop these missile launches," he told reporters.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha also extended an olive branch of sorts, suggesting that North Korea accept Seoul's request for talks in a three-minute greeting with Ri. He declined, calling her offer "insincere" because Seoul is helping Washington put pressure on North Korea.

Experts say the most realistic path may be to resume six-party talks, in which the U.S., China, Russia, Japan and both Koreas discussed ways to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Those meetings have been suspended since 2008.

"As the U.S. wants denuclearization [of North Korea] while North Korea seeks a peace treaty [with the U.S.], it is rational to discuss all the matters together," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. "In the early stage, they can take actions from what they agree with, and later they can move to negotiate on their differences step by step."

POOR NEGOTIATORS Yet many are skeptical even that would work. Given the number of interests at stake, the talks had never been easy. Now that almost a decade has passed since the last meeting, they maybe even tougher, partly because North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong Un, is an inexperienced negotiator.

"Under Kim Jong Un's leadership, North Korea is pushing for stronger actions than it did in the Kim Jong Il era," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. "He has little flexibility in terms of ... negotiations."

Yang, meanwhile, said the Trump administration is lacking in the strategy department. "I don't think that the U.S. has a clear policy on North Korea. It says one thing today and another thing tomorrow."

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said recently that Trump is ready to strike. "There is a military option to destroy North Korea's program and North Korea itself," Graham said on NBC. Tillerson's suggestion that talks are possible came less than a week later.

CHINA'S ROLE Who, then, does that leave to take the lead? Beijing seems to believe the answer is China. Though the country had been reluctant to stand in the way of Pyongyang developing a nuclear arsenal, it is now asking the U.S. and North Korea to come to the negotiating table. Foreign Minister Wang played a key role in broaching this idea at the ASEAN forum.

"It's not that easy, but it is a direction that we need to work together towards. Only dialogue and negotiation is the correct way out to address the Korean Peninsula issue," Wang told reporters on Aug. 6 after talks with his North Korean counterpart. "That is also provided for in the just-concluded U.N. Security Council Resolution 2371."

He said it is a good sign that Pyongyang's top diplomat was at the meeting and could hear other countries' views. As Pyongyang continues its reckless game, and the volatile Trump administration finds itself with few viable options, China's role as an intermediary is likely to become even more important.

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