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North Korea nuclear crisis

The US needs China’s help to engineer peace on the Korean peninsula

Charles K. Armstrong and John Barry Kotch say Trump must respond to North Korea’s latest missile test not with belligerence but with a resolve to use diplomacy to restructure the Korean peninsula’s security framework

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 February, 2017, 3:06pm
UPDATED : Friday, 17 February, 2017, 9:26pm

While it wasn’t the big one – the threatened launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile that the world had been primed for – US President Donald Trump nevertheless characterised the latest North Korean missile test as a “big problem”. And it came with a twist: Pyongyang upped the ante by unveiling a new class of solid-fuel intermediate-range ballistic missile (although it flew only 500km, landing in the Sea of Japan or what Koreans call the East Sea).

Still, the timing could not have been more telling – interrupting the dinner chatter between Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the president’s Palm Beach retreat at Mar-a-Lago and putting policymaking “on the menu” – or the purpose more pointed. Apparently, Kim Jong-un was not about to cut Trump any slack during his first weeks in office. Whether this was a one-off or the prelude to a more ambitious launch of a longer-range ballistic missile only adds to the drama.

Watch: North Korea hails its new missile test as a success

As a new US administration settles into office, the fourth to confront the North Korean nuclear dilemma since the 1990s (preceded by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama), a sense of déjà vu is mixed with the realisation that the North is on the cusp of achieving the necessary range and warhead miniaturisation that could put the US homeland in the crosshairs and the US president in a Catch-22. And, given the virtual unanimity among experts that Pyongyang will have such a capability by 2020 at the latest, the Trump administration doesn’t have the luxury of kicking the can down the road.

Unpalatable as it is, Trump should talk to North Korea

How should the US respond to the reality of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the US homeland? One possibility is pre-emption, which risks collateral damage to South Korea (Seoul is already in range of North Korea’s conventional artillery) and Japan. Or reliance on an antiballistic missile system, such as the THAAD defensive shield set to be deployed in South Korea by the end of the year. THAAD, unfortunately, is not foolproof and is seen by China as a threat to its own strategic deterrent capability. Or the US can explore a third way: a diplomatic initiative in concert with China.

For now, however, the Trump administration is most likely to double down on sanctions while accelerating the deployment of THAAD. North Korea is already probably the most heavily sanctioned country in the world and this move would do nothing to alter the reality of Pyongyang’s move towards nuclear capability. Further, most of its trade passes through China, facilitated by Chinese companies, banks and individuals. Beijing is not about to impose punishing sanctions on its Korean neighbour, destabilising a regime that serves as a buffer against encroachment by its southern rival and power projection to China’s border by the United States.

Heat is on China after North Korean missile test

In its report on recommendations for the new administration on US policy towards China, the Asia Society ranks working with China to halt North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme as the most urgent. Specifically, it recommends that the US president “immediately engage” President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) to create a new “high-level channel dedicated to the joint resolution of this problem”. For his part, Xi appears accommodating, according to Xinhua, noting in a recent conversation with Trump that, “Facts have shown that cooperation is the only correct choice for the US and China”. The key question is, how far or deep will such cooperation go?

Now, as then, China remains the key interlocutor but the stakes are exponentially higher

Further, the report recommends that to “encourage” China to use its leverage on North Korea, the Trump administration should “work in close coordination with South Korea [to negotiate] a formal peace treaty replacing the Korean war armistice and diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang”, in return for a verified freeze of North Korea’s programme and a pledge to denuclearise.

The good news is that the two Koreas have previously reached agreements on a de facto peace treaty, in the form of the 1991 Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, Exchanges and Cooperation between South and North Korea (also known as the Basic Agreement), providing for confidence-building and tension reduction, including the mutual observation of military exercises, as well as the 1992 protocol banning the development, testing and possession of nuclear weapons on the peninsula.

The problem is that they have not been implemented, while the regional powers with a stake in peace on the Korean peninsula – the US, China and Russia – have thus far stood aside, conspicuously failing to formally endorse or lend their support to the above inter-Korean agreements, thereby contributing to the precarious nature of regional peace and security.

Hostility simmers, keeping the North Korean nuclear threat alive

During the 1970s, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger advanced a comprehensive and forward-looking diplomatic initiative – a precursor to the Basic Agreement – centred on Sino-US rapprochement, with the goal of reshaping the security environment through “alternative armistice arrangements” while transferring primary security responsibility to the two Koreas with the US and China in background roles. While gaining the support of then premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) and his deputy, in the end, the Chinese were unwilling to press a reluctant North Korean ally, intent on grandstanding at the United Nations in an effort to get US forces out of South Korea by dissolving the UN Command, and the initiative stalled.

Uncertainty stalks China-N Korea ties with ‘assassination’ of Kim Jong-un’s pro-Beijing half-brother

Now, as then, China remains the key interlocutor but the stakes are exponentially higher, with Pyongyang on the cusp of testing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the US homeland, in addition to US allies, Japan and South Korea. Gaining Chinese acquiescence this time around in restructuring the security architecture of the Korean peninsula – initially along the lines envisaged in the 1991 Basic Agreement and its provisions for confidence-building and tension-reduction – is critical, as is Pyongyang’s compliance.

Follow-on multilateral security arrangements guaranteeing the security of both Koreas would mitigate the gap between China’s view of North Korea as a buffer state and the US view of the North as a nuclear threat. As the only outside power with a military presence on the Korean peninsula, it is incumbent on the US to take the lead in designing and implementing a multilateral security framework by building on principles previously agreed by the two Koreas but never implemented.

Charles K. Armstrong is professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University. John Barry Kotch is a political historian specialising in US security policy towards Korea