Now is the time for US to reach out to North Korea
Instead of tightening the screw on Pyongyang and moving to punish those in China, the Trump administration should explore restarting formal talks
If ever there was a time for exercising strategic patience – the term coined for US policy towards North Korea’s nuclear threat under the Obama administration, it is now. The agreement between North and South Korea on the North’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games is a breakthrough in ties that have been frozen for two years.
The outcome includes teams from the two sides marching together at the opening ceremony under a single flag of unification. It breaks the ice for wider discussions, such as the resumption of economic cooperation and family reunions.
However frustrating Pyongyang’s success in breaking United Nations sanctions is to the United States and its allies, this is no time for a punitive response under President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy to counter the North’s nuclear defiance.
But that is what the US has been doing. First it was a prime mover in organising a meeting of foreign ministers from 20 countries to strengthen diplomatic efforts towards denuclearising the Korean peninsula – without inviting the North’s neighbour and closest ally China, or Russia. Then it imposed new sanctions on Chinese and North Korean-linked firms and individuals, which it said supported the regime of Kim Jong-un and his nuclear weapons programme.
Now US Treasury Undersecretary Sigal Mandelker has again asked Beijing in “blunt” terms to expel North Korean nationals who the US says are helping Pyongyang fund its nuclear weapons programme. The tone of her remarks did not suggest a narrowing of differences.
It is to be expected that Beijing will only support sanctions approved by the Security Council. It is politically difficult for it to adopt unilateral sanctions lest it be accused of following Washington’s lead.
Nonetheless, China’s refusal to heed requests to expel people the US says are helping finance the nuclear programme has prompted US moves to punish Chinese entities and individuals allegedly concerned. We can respect the Chinese position and understand the US point of view. But the timing of its latest moves is questionable when North and South have resumed talking. It would make more sense for the US to use the occasion to reach out to the North and explore restarting formal talks.