China proposes plan to defuse Korean crisis
Beijing calls for end to N. Korea missiles, S. Korea exercises.
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.
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.