China pro­poses plan to defuse Korean cri­sis

Bei­jing calls for end to N. Korea mis­siles, S. Korea ex­er­cises.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - Chris Buckley

China tried BEI­JING — Wed­nes­day to cool newly volatile ten­sions on the Korean Penin­sula, propos­ing that North Korea sus­pend its nu­clear and mis­sile pro­grams in ex­change for a halt to ma­jor mil­i­tary ex­er­cises by U.S. and South Korean forces.

Such con­ces­sions could pave the way for talks aimed at a last­ing set­tle­ment that would end North Korea’s nu­clear am­bi­tions, Chi­nese For­eign Min­is­ter Wang Yi said at a news con­fer­ence in Bei­jing. The al­ter­na­tive to talks, he said, would be an in­creas­ingly per­ilous stand­off that threat­ens the en­tire re­gion.

“The two sides are like two ac­cel­er­at­ing trains com­ing to­ward each other, and nei­ther side is will­ing to give way,” Wang said. “The ques­tion is: Are both sides re­ally pre­pared for a head-on col­li­sion?”

De­vel­op­ments this week have abruptly es­ca­lated re­gional ten­sions over the iso­lated North’s nu­clear arms de­vel­op­ment. Af­ter North Korea’s lat­est mis­sile launch Mon­day, the United States and South Korea be­gan de­ploy­ing an anti-mis­sile sys­tem that China con­sid­ers a threat to its own se­cu­rity. Bei­jing ac­cused the U.S. of risk­ing a new arms race in the re­gion.

At the same time, the North is in a diplo­matic stand­off with another Asian coun­try, Malaysia, stem­ming from the Fe­bru­ary killing of Kim Jong Nam, the North Korean leader’s es­tranged half-brother, in Kuala Lumpur.

On Tues­day, Py­ongyang — an­gered by a police in­ves­ti­ga­tion that has named sev­eral North Kore­ans as sus­pects — said that no Malaysians liv­ing in North Korea would be al­lowed to leave the coun­try and Malaysia quickly re­sponded in kind.

On Wed­nes­day, Wang said the pri­or­ity in the dis­pute over North Korea’s nu­clear pro­gram was now “to flash the red light and ap­ply brakes.”

China’s “sus­pen­sion for sus­pen­sion” pro­posal “can help us break out of the se­cu­rity dilemma and bring the par­ties back to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble,” he said.

But it was far from clear the idea would gain trac­tion. North Korea made a sim­i­lar of­fer in 2015 that went nowhere. Nei­ther the Ja­panese nor South Korean gov­ern­ments rushed to en­dorse China’s lat­est pro­posal.

Wang’s pro­posal was China’s lat­est at­tempt to re­gain the ini­tia­tive on the nu­clear is­sue, which has be­dev­iled Bei­jing’s ef­forts to stay friends with both North and South Korea and prove it­self a ma­ture re­gional power bro­ker.

“The cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is a chal­lenge for the Chi­nese govern­ment’s diplo­macy,” said Cheng Xiaohe, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor at Ren­min Univer­sity in Bei­jing who spe­cial­izes in North Korea. “The sit­u­a­tion in the East Asian re­gion is in­creas­ingly com­pli­cated, and the pos­si­bil­ity of a diplo­matic so­lu­tion to the nu­clear mis­sile is­sue is in­creas­ingly slim.”

Rein­ing in North Korea has also be­come a fo­cus for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s deal­ings with China. Start­ing next week, Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son is to visit Ja­pan, South Korea and China for talks that will fo­cus on “the ad­vanc­ing nu­clear and mis­sile threat” from North Korea, the State De­part­ment said.

North Korea’s weapons ad­vance­ments have reached a point where “we do need to look at other al­ter­na­tives,” Mark Toner, a spokesman for the State De­part­ment, told re­porters Tues­day in Wash­ing­ton. “And that’s part of what this trip is about, that we’re go­ing to talk to our al­lies and part­ners in the re­gion to try to gen­er­ate a new ap­proach to North Korea.”

But bring­ing the coun­tries into agree­ment over ini­tial steps to­ward peace will not be easy. At the same news con­fer­ence where he laid out his pro­posal Tues­day, Wang stuck to China’s fierce op­po­si­tion to the mis­sile de­fense sys­tem the United States be­gan as­sem­bling in South Korea this week.

LEE JIN-MAN / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pro­test­ers in Seoul, South Korea, on Wed­nes­day shout slo­gans dur­ing a rally op­pos­ing the de­ploy­ment of the Ter­mi­nal High Alti­tude Area De­fense sys­tem, which is be­ing in­stalled af­ter North Korean nu­clear mis­sile tests Mon­day.

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