China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, last week called for calm and renewed efforts to build trust on the Korean Peninsula amid rapidly escalating tensions between China’s once-close ally North Korea, South Korea, and the United States. Tensions rose after North Korea test-fired five missiles into the sea off Japan’s northwest coast—the latest in a series of ballistic missile and nuclear tests the reclusive communist country has conducted in recent months in defiance of UN resolutions.
After the missile tests, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the threat from North Korea had “entered into a new phase.” In response to the tests, the United States military began to deploy to South Korea the first elements of its advanced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, which is designed to intercept short- and long-range ballistic missiles, a move that China opposes because it says it has the potential to upset the regional balance of power.
As a way to quell tensions, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on North Korea to halt its on-going pursuit of more powerful nuclear weapons and on the United States to suspend its joint military drills with South Korea, which have been conducted annually for the past 40 years and which North Korea considers provocative and preparatory for an invasion. North Korean diplomat Ju Yong Choi, told the UN-backed Conference on Disarmament in Geneva that the annual U.S.-South Korean military drills were “a major cause of escalation of tension and that they had the potential to turn into actual war.”
“The two sides are like two accelerating trains coming towards each other, with neither side willing to give way,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang at a news conference in Beijing on the sidelines of China’s annual legislative assembly, The National People’s Conference, “The question,” Wang added, “is: are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision? He said that China’s priority now “is to flash a red light and apply brakes on both trains.”
Washington, however, rejected China’s proposal that North Korea could halt its nuclear weapons program if the United States and South Korea suspended military activities in the region. U.S. State Department acting-spokesman Mark Toner said the proposed trade-off was inappropriate because it was unequal and “like comparing apples and oranges.” He said that positive action from North Korea was required instead. “At this point we don’t see it as a viable deal.” Said Pentagon spokesman, Cmdr. Gary Ross, [because] “U.S. activities to defend South Korea cannot be equated to North Korea’s repeated violations of its obligations and agreements.”
“[The North Koreans] have given us enough reason to think how irresponsible they are, with little cause to believe that we’re dealing with a rational person on this,” said Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, after an emergency Security Council meeting on North Korea following the missile tests. Haley added: “We have to see some positive action by North Korea before we can take them seriously.” South Korea’s Ambassador to the UN also rebuffed China’s proposed compromise, saying: “Linking these [military] exercises to anything else is inappropriate and unacceptable,” adding that “the exercises are defensive in nature.”
Geng Shuang, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said at a weekly press conference in Beijing that China’s “suspension-for-suspension proposal is in fact a viable plan, a parallel-track approach” designed to address the main obstacle to peace on the Peninsula, namely, the absence of mutual trust amongst relevant parties. He added that one part of the plan “aims at easing tensions and creating an opportunity for the restart of dialogue and consultation, while the [other part of the plan is intended] “to advance denuclearization and realize lasting peace and security on the Peninsula and in the region.”
The Korean Peninsula issue is complex,” Geng noted, adding “there is a severe trust deficit among relevant parties.” Only a solution that accommodates all parties’ concerns can thoroughly and effectively resolve this issue. The suspension-for-suspension proposal and the parallel-track approach put forward by China accommodates various parties’ most pressing concerns, reflects the reality of the issue, grasps the crux of the problem and is in line with relevant UN Security Council resolutions, and as such, the plan is impartial, reasonable and workable, he said, adding “we hope that all relevant parties will stay committed to peace, stability and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, think out of the box, act in a rational and pragmatic way, think more carefully about China’s proposals and make a constructive response.”
Meanwhile, on March 1 North Korea’s Vice-Foreign Minister Ri Kil-Song met with China’s foreign Minister. After the meeting, China issued a statement reaffirming its friendship with North Korea, saying that “it is hoped that all relevant parties [can] seize the opportunities, resolve challenges, contain the situation and make new efforts in realizing the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and building a peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula.