China offers a plan to deal with North Korea: Will it work?

China's foreign minister offered a proposal to bring North Korea and the United States back to the negotiating table. But much of what he said has been tried before.  

KCNA via Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un supervised a ballistic rocket launching drill of Hwasong artillery units of the Strategic Force of the KPA on the spot in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang March 7, 2017.

After nearly a decade away from the negotiating table, China has a proposal to lure North and South Korea and the United States back.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Wednesday that North Korea should suspend its nuclear and missile programs, while South Korea and the US should put a pause on the major military exercises they hold in the region each year.  

Most analysts consider China’s proposal, on its face, to be a nonstarter. It's been tried before. But the context may be different enough that even trotting out an old idea may offer a path to progress. And the timing is relevant, coming just ahead of US secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first visit to the region, from March 15-19.  

“China, by making this proposal public, is in effect trying to mediate between the United States and North Korea. First, they are trying to send a signal to Pyongyang and Washington. Second, they are throwing down the gauntlet before Tillerson shows up in Beijing,” Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview on Wednesday.

“In a way, they are throwing this proposal out there with the hope that it puts the brakes on what could be a deteriorating situation,” he says.

In Wednesday’s news conference on the sidelines of China’s annual legislative session, Mr. Wang said the proposal would be the start of a solution “to defuse the looming crisis” on the Korean peninsula.

“The two sides are like two accelerating trains coming towards each other with neither side willing to give way. The question is are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision?” said Wang, who likened China to the “switchman” for denuclearization and peace.

“Given the situation, our priority now is to flash the red light and apply brakes on both trains,” he said.

Indeed, tensions are bubbling up throughout the Pacific. On Monday, North Korea test fired four ballistic missiles into the sea off Japan, a dry run, they said, for a nuclear attack against American military bases there in response to an invasion. Less than 48 hours later, the US started its long-planned deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system, which China opposes. Fearing THAAD’s radar will be able to peer into its territory and military activity, China warned the system would lead to a new arms race in the region, according to The New York Times. At the same time, North Korea is embroiled in a diplomatic standoff with Malaysia over the February murder of Kim’s estranged half-brother, Kim Jong-nam.

Mr. Tillerson’s focus when he arrives in Beijing on March 18 will be the North Korean nuclear and missile threat, the Monitor previously reported. Tillerson is expected to push Chinese officials to place more economic pressure on North Korea. Last month, Beijing suspended all coal imports from North Korea for the rest of the year, an important source of foreign currency for the isolated regime.

In addition to sanctions, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Tuesday that it is “looking at other possibilities” to counter North Korea. But Mr. Toner added that direct negotiations is not one of those options.

“[G]iven North Korea’s recent behavior, we’re not at the point where we’re looking at direct engagement with them,” he said in a news conference. “They’re increasingly becoming a pariah through this kind of behavior that violates the international norms and international law.”

The US and North Korea have not met for formal negotiations – the six-party talks between them, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia – since 2008, when they fell apart because North Korea refused to allow international inspectors unfettered access to suspected nuclear sites, according to CNN. An attempt to restart talks between US officials and a North Korean delegation failed three years later.

Much of China’s proposal on Wednesday has been tried before one way or another.  From 1994 to 1996, the United States and South Korea cancelled their yearly military exercises – then named Team Spirit – as a carrot to encourage North Korea to disable its nuclear program. Under a 1994 agreement with the United States, North Korea suspended its nuclear program, but officially resumed it in 2003 after there were questions about whether it was secretly continuing it anyway, according to CNN.

In 2015, Kim offered to suspend his country’s nuclear program if the US and South Korea also halted their military exercise. North Korea intended the move to be an olive branch, calling it a “crucial step” for negotiations. But the US and South Korea both rebuffed the offer.  

Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman at the time, said it “inappropriately” linked the “routine” joint military drills “to the possibility of a nuclear test.”

But the proposal also came at a different point in the two countries’ relationship. Just a month beforehand, Washington said North Korea hacked into Sony Pictures over a movie that involved a fictional CIA plot to assassinate Kim. The US imposed sanctions on North Korea, while the North denied involvement.

Leon Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York City, insists the climate is different now.

“The only way to fix this problem is through negotiations. We’ve tried sanctions for years,” Dr. Sigal tells the Monitor.

He says the stakes are too high not to engage North Koreans in direct dialogue. North Korea’s test launch of the four ballistic missiles simultaneously would overwhelm a THAAD system, he says. The New York Times also reported over the weekend that a cyber war against North Korea’s nuclear and missiles program has been unsuccessful. And North Korea is assumed to be close to developing a missile that can carry a nuclear warhead to the United States, as well as expanding its nuclear arsenal from an estimated 20 warheads to at least 50, says Sigal. 

“Negotiations,”  he says, “aren’t going to be easy. There is no reason to assume the North Koreans are going to live up to their end of the deal. But it’s worth trying.”

But Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst with the RAND Corporation, says China’s proposal is unbalanced. It doesn’t ask North Korea to suspend its own training, and there’s no reason to trust North Korea.

“How often have we had agreements with North Korea and North Korea didn’t deliver?” says Dr. Bennett.

It’s unclear how the Trump administration will move forward. It is in the process of a detailed policy review of North Korea, and Tillerson's trip to Beijing may be an opportunity for China and the US to develop a working relationship on the issue. 

President Trump has offered mixed indications of which way he might go. At times, he has promised to take a hard line against Kim. Other times, he has said the opposite.

“I’ll speak to anybody," he said on the campaign trail. "There's a 10 percent or 20 percent chance I could talk him out of having his damn nukes, because who the hell wants him to have nukes?"

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