Korean peninsula

US and China must join hands to halt Kim Jong-un’s nuclear quest

John Barry Kotch says the US acted hastily in rejecting Beijing’s offer of a way to freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. The blueprint for jointly securing regional peace lies in unimplemented inter-Korean agreements from the 1990s

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 March, 2017, 1:27pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 March, 2017, 7:51pm

Washington has reacted short-sightedly in rejecting out of hand Beijing’s timely proposal for a freeze on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programmes in exchange for a halt to US-South Korean joint military exercises. Not only is this a slap in China’s face, it also undercuts the latter’s political leverage with the North Korean regime, while letting the North off the hook in the likely event that it also rejects the Chinese offer.

We now confront a political situation on the Korean peninsula without parallel in recent years

These are bizarre, tumultuous times, with the assassination of the North Korean leader’s half-brother in Malaysia – bearing all the markings of a political hit – and the removal of the South’s president in a first by the country’s Constitutional Court. We now confront a political situation on the Korean peninsula without parallel in recent years. Previous North Korean leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, both showed a receptiveness for negotiations (receiving former or sitting US presidents or sending high-level envoys to meet them, such as the talks between Jimmy Carter and Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang in 1994, and Bill Clinton and visiting Korean No 2 Jo Myong-rok in 2000), as well as for defining the Korean peninsula as the field of play.

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Kim Jong-un, however, has not only barrelled ahead with an intercontinental ballistic missile programme but redefined and expanded the field territorially – unequivocally stating that the US represents his target of choice if push comes to shove. And he now appears to be on a crash course to realise that ambition, with the express purpose of putting the US homeland within range of a nuclear strike.

Watch: South Korean president Park Geun-hye removed from office

In the short term, the outcome will turn on three factors; the first is the results of the upcoming South Korean election to replace its deposed president, Park Geun-hye. The front runner is the candidate of the moderate opposition, Moon Jae-in. This bodes well for future negotiation and reconciliation with the North, thus providing the necessary political momentum for a rethinking of the South’s deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system against ballistic missiles. China is adamantly opposed to the deployment of THAAD, as it sees the system as a threat to its own military capabilities. For the South, already under threat from conventional artillery and short-range missiles, and reliant on US Patriot missile batteries, THAAD is more psychological salve than a defence mainstay. A case has yet to be made that its additional capability is worth the political cost and potential economic loss in terms of ties with China.

The best shot at stopping Kim is for the US and China to pursue a joint strategy of sanctions and carrots, rather than find themselves on opposite sides. If the Trump administration wants to seriously explore the prospects for diplomacy and dialogue with North Korea, it need look no further than the two landmark – albeit unimplemented – agreements entered into by the two Koreas more than two decades ago: the 1991 North-South Basic Agreement on Non-Aggression, Reconciliation, Exchange and Cooperation; and the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, banning the development, testing and possession of nuclear weapons – a de facto security framework for peace and stability.

Beijing’s support in implementing these inter-Korean agreements is critical. Its recent suspension of imports of North Korean coal demonstrates a willingness to take a strong stand, overcoming previous hesitancy in the light of recent missile tests.

As North Korea loses its use, China loses its patience

In the 19th century, regional instability was the by-product of great power rivalry for control of the Korean peninsula, with two Sino-Japanese wars followed by a Russo-Japanese war resulting in Korea’s annexation. Paradoxically, the contemporary threat to regional peace and security derives from developments on the peninsula itself.

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In failing to lend their support to these inter-Korean agreements, the powers with a direct stake in peace and security on the Korean peninsula, especially the US and China, have contributed to the precarious nature of regional peace and security – none more so than the US, the only outside power militarily present on the peninsula today.

John Barry Kotch is a political historian and a former State Department consultant specialising in US security policy towards Korea