THE US, South Korea and Japan launched joint naval missile defense drills in the Sea of Japan on Tuesday, just two weeks after North Korea fired four ballistic missiles. Tensions continue to ramp up on the Korean Peninsula. Some Western media outlets blamed the current chaos on China’s friendly policy toward North Korea, arguing that Beijing should impose tougher sanctions on Pyongyang to curb the latter’s nuclear ambitions. This is unfair and groundless. China’s opposition to North Korea’s nuclear tests is clear and consistent, despite its traditionally friendly relations with Pyongyang. Pyongyang’s nuclear tests are detrimental not only for China, but also jeopardize regional security. In return, Beijing has decided to halt all coal imports from Pyongyang, an important source of foreign revenue for the country’s fragile economy, for the rest of 2017 in compliance with UN Security Council resolutions. China has been urging North Korea to cooperate on resolving the nuclear issue.
China’s Pyongyang policy is criticized by some Western observers as a policy of appeasement. This is unfair. China and North Korea are at different development stages. China hopes that Pyongyang can carry out the reform and opening-up policy like what it did about 40 years ago. However, Pyongyang, even without nuclear weapons, may still be perceived as a trouble-maker in the region if it insists on isolating itself from the rest of the world.
Intensive economic, political and cultural exchanges with the international community are needed for the country to open up and revive its economy. Nonetheless, sanctions lessen the chance for communications. Balancing imposing sanctions and initiating reforms in Pyongyang is a challenge for Beijing, and the international community should be more understanding.
By shifting the full responsibility on Beijing, the Western countries, especially the US, attempt to exploit the nuclear issue to strategically contain China in the region. This makes the already chaotic situation more sensitive and complicated. From the US’ strategic perspective, it can use the tensions on the peninsula as an excuse to squeeze its imaginary “enemy” in the region. The US cares more about its strategic aims than regional peace, and has failed to play an active role that it is supposed to as a major power in promoting peace and stability on the peninsula.
The peninsula is now witnessing escalating tensions, with the US, South Korea and the North constantly raising the stakes. All parties concerned have their respective strategic goals. With a string of nuclear tests, Pyongyang attempts to force the international community to accept and legitimize its status as a nuclear state. Washington, by launching military drills, wants to deter Pyongyang from its nuclear ambitions, and meanwhile, is flexing its military muscles in the region. Seoul is currently in an extremely awkward situation. While it is clear that confrontation with the North brings no benefits, it has to court Washington and exchange the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system for a nuclear umbrella.
To break the deadlock, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi made the proposal of suspension-for-suspension and dual-track approach at a press conference during the just-concluded two sessions, suggesting that North Korea suspend its missile and nuclear activities in exchange for a halt in US-South Korea exercises, and then replace the armistice with a peace agreement. The proposal targets at the crux of the conundrum and will accommodate the pressing concerns of all stakeholders. However, the implementation of the proposal may have to overcome a number of obstacles. The US and South Korea are not actively responding to the proposal. Washington insists that North Korea must abandon its nuclear ambitions for the talks to take place.
Persuading Pyongyang to integrate itself into the international community is another challenge. North Korea’s nuclear attempts, as well as Western strategy of squeezing China in Northeast Asia, have resulted in and escalated the ongoing tensions on the peninsula. International efforts are needed to address the Korean Peninsula issue.
[The author is director of the Institute of International Politics, North Korea-South Korea Research Center, Yanbian University.]