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North Korea sanctions

Trump urged to abandon China strategy and start formal talks with North Korea

Analysts say tightening the screws on Beijing won’t work and Washington must deal directly with Pyongyang

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 August, 2017, 12:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 August, 2017, 5:41pm

Top US experts on North Korea have urged President Donald Trump to start formal talks with Pyongyang, saying the strategy of heaping pressure on China to solve the situation won’t work.

Joseph DeTrani, former special envoy for the six-party talks with North Korea, said it was time to consider formal negotiations with Pyongyang to “get North Korea to halt all nuclear tests and missile launches and return to unconditional nuclear discussions and negotiations”.

“I’m not supportive of putting so-called pressure on China,” he said. “Economic and trade relations should not be commingled with national security issues related to North Korea.”

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On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted that talks were possible, and acknowledged that Pyongyang had shown some signs of restraint since the United Nations imposed tougher sanctions on the North on August 5.

“We hope that this is the beginning of this signal that we’ve been looking for – that they are ready to restrain their level of tensions, they’re ready to restrain their provocative acts, and that perhaps we are seeing our pathway to sometime in the near future having some dialogue,” Tillerson said.

Backchannel talks have reportedly been held for several months between Joseph Yun, the US envoy for North Korea policy, and Pak Song-il, a senior North Korean diplomat at its UN mission in New York, Associated Press reported earlier this month.

But DeTrani, former director of the National Counterproliferation Centre and special adviser to the director of National Intelligence, said backchannel diplomacy between the Trump administration and Pyongyang was not enough.

“Track 1.5 talks between North Korean officials and former US officials are better than no talks, but our goal should be formal talks,” DeTrani said. “The ‘New York Channel’, with North Korea’s UN mission and the State Department, was established with the creation of the six-party talks in 2003.”

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Other experts agreed that Trump should elevate the level of dialogue.

“A higher level of communication and more reliable communication is necessary to avoid small conflicts from escalating to larger conflicts – either military or diplomatic ones,” said James L. Schoff, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Programme. “So unconditional dialogue would be a good thing to pursue right now, separate from efforts to promote denuclearisation.”

Tillerson’s signal on talks came the same day the US slapped new punitive sanctions on China, but analysts believe tightening the screws on Beijing will do little to ease the situation.

The US Treasury on Tuesday announced sanctions against 16 Chinese and Russian entities and six individuals, but it stopped short of an anticipated move targeting Chinese banks.

It was met with an angry response from the Chinese embassy in Washington, which said it opposed the sanctions, “especially the ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ over Chinese entities and individuals exercised by any country in accordance with its domestic laws”, according to a statement carried by China Daily.

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“I don’t believe there is much of a ‘China card’ to play. The US and China are too mutually interdependent for US pressure to force China’s hand,” said Charles Armstrong, an expert on Korean affairs from Columbia University. “China cannot ‘solve’ the North Korea problem; the US must deal directly with North Korea as well.”

He said that for years the US had overestimated both China’s leverage over North Korea and potential US leverage over China.

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Balbina Hwang, a former US State Department senior adviser, agreed that the approach of piling pressure on China was not working. “If there is one lesson we should have learned in the last 20 years – especially since the six-party talks [on North Korea] under the George W. Bush administration – it is that the road to Pyongyang does not go through Beijing,” she said.

Hwang, a visiting professor at Georgetown University, noted that since 2001, the US had been trying to “persuade, cajole, pressure, beg China to solve the nuclear issue with North Korea” with little success.

“China will not change or dramatically alter its approach to North Korea because it simply is not in China’s national interest – which is to prevent conflict and major instability in all of its bordering regions. It is not a wise strategy to take a discrete, short-term transactional approach with China,” she said.

Frederick Carriere, a professor with the Korean Peninsula Affairs Centre at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, said all forms of communication between the two sides should be encouraged.

“However, I imagine these two experienced diplomats would be among the first to acknowledge that their exchanges will not solve the problem, unless they pave the way for serious, tough negotiations at a much higher level,” Carriere said.

Armstrong agreed. “Ultimately, the situation can only improve through higher-level dialogue, and ultimately at the level of the top leadership – as Bill Clinton and Kim Jong-il came close to doing in late 2000,” he said.