North Korea nuclear crisis

Trump takes wrong approach with Pyongyang

Sanctions and threats do not work in the nuclear showdown with North Korea, so the US president would do well to explore Beijing’s strategy of diplomacy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 November, 2017, 1:24am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 November, 2017, 1:24am

China’s efforts to bring stability to the Korean peninsula involve a delicate balancing act. The nation has to comply with UN Security Council sanctions aimed at ending nuclear and missile proliferation. But Pyongyang has weathered years of embargoes and there is no certainty that greater isolation will put an end to further development and testing of its weapons. With US President Donald Trump sending mixed signals about his country’s intentions, the diplomacy being pursued by Beijing remains the best strategy.

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Trump praised China’s diplomatic efforts during recent talks with President Xi Jinping and other leaders in Beijing. But with his eye on toughening sanctions through cutting banking links, trade and energy supplies, he also called on China to “act fast”. Beijing holds that the most effective approach is through diplomacy, but it also understands the need to keep its Security Council obligations. Within days of the meeting with Trump, Xi had started a process of patching up differences with the leaders of South Korea and Japan and sent an envoy to North Korea. Air China last week announced a suspension of flights to North Korea.

The success of the four-day trip by the envoy, Song Tao, the head of the Communist Party’s international liaison department, has yet to be gauged. It was the first visit to North Korea by a Chinese official since 2015 and was presented as a briefing of last month’s party congress.

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There has been no confirmation as to whether Song met leader Kim Jong-un, although he held talks with other officials, including Kim’s right-hand man, the vice-president of the ruling Worker’s Party, Choe Ryong-hae. If there was no meeting with Kim, it would be a marked departure from usual protocol and a reflection of how far relations have soured.

There has been unusual calm for the past two months, with North Korea last testing a missile on September 15, although there are fears another could be launched in coming days. But Trump has shown no willingness to match words with deeds.

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While speaking during his Asian trip of the need for diplomacy, he has since returned to old ways of pressure and threats. North Korea has been put back on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism and 13 Chinese and North Korean groups have been hit with sanctions to “isolate the murderous regime”.

Blacklisting North Korea for unfounded terrorism claims could harm Beijing’s diplomatic efforts. Punishing Chinese companies when Beijing is doing its best to enforce international penalties does not help ensure a coordinated approach. Pyongyang claims its weapons are aimed at preventing an attack from the United States, making Trump central to a solution. Sanctions and threats do not work; he would do well to explore Beijing’s strategy of diplomacy.