North Korean nuclear threat tops agenda as China’s senior diplomat visits Tokyo
State Councillor Yang Jiechi arrives in Japan just hours after Pyongyang launches ballistic missile
China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi will hold talks with senior Japanese officials about North Korea’s nuclear programme during a three-day trip to Tokyo, after Pyongyang fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan on Monday.
It was the latest in a series of missile tests that have ratcheted up tensions on the Korean peninsula amid growing calls to impose tougher sanctions on the regime.
South Korean and Japanese officials said the suspected Scud-class short-range missile flew about 450km on Monday morning before landing in Japan’s maritime economic zone. It was met with condemnation from Washington and Pyongyang’s neighbours.
In Beijing, the foreign ministry urged North Korea to create the conditions for a return to talks.
“At present the situation on the Korean peninsula is complex and sensitive, and we hope all relevant sides maintain calm and exercise restraint,” the ministry said in a statement.
The launch followed two successful tests of medium- to long-range missiles in as many weeks by the North, which has been conducting such tests at an unprecedented pace in an effort to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that is capable of hitting the mainland of the United States.
Kim Jong-un’s regime may have deliberately fired it towards waters that are claimed by both Japan and South Korea to foment discord between the nations and undermine cooperation with the US, according to Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Programme at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.
State Councillor Yang arrived in Japan just hours after the missile launch and is expected to discuss with Japanese officials how to deal with Pyongyang.
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said he planned to meet Yang today and that Beijing had a “very important” role in applying pressure on Pyongyang, which continues to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he would raise the North Korean issue during his talks with Yang, when they would also discuss a summit between Abe and President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Germany in July.
Da Zhigang, director of the Institute of Northeast Asian Studies at the Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, said Pyongyang’s provocations encouraged stronger cooperation between China and its rival Japan.
Yang’s trip to Japan would create “good conditions” for a possible Xi-Abe summit, he added.
“Despite territorial disputes and historical issues between China and Japan, there has been a growing consensus between the two countries over North Korea,” Da said, adding that China would be unlikely to endorse additional sanctions demanded by Japan and the United States.
US President Donald Trump responded to Monday’s test on Twitter: “North Korea has shown great disrespect for their neighbour, China, by shooting off yet another ballistic missile ... but China is trying hard!”
The US Pacific Command said it tracked what appeared to be a short-range ballistic missile for six minutes and concluded it did not pose a threat to North America.
It was North’s Korea’s third ballistic missile launch since South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office on May 10.
North Korea was likely showing its determination to push ahead in the face of international pressure to rein in its missile programme and “to pressure the [South Korean] government to change its policy on the North”, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Roh Jae-cheon said.
Moon has said sanctions alone had failed to resolve the growing threat from the North’s advancing nuclear and missile programme.
North Korea tested a rocket on May 14 that it said could carry a “large-size heavy nuclear warhead” over long distances. The Hwasong-12 was said to have a range of at least 4,500km, putting it within reach of US military facilities on the island of Guam.
A week later, it fired a medium-range Pukguksong-2, which Kim has approved for deployment and mass production.
The US has sought more help from China to rein in its neighbour and ally. Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton on Friday acknowledged China’s efforts, such as banning North Korean coal imports and tightening border controls, while adding that “they clearly have to do more”.
Additional reporting by Associated Press, Reuters and Kyodo