China calls for N. Korea to back down
MANILA, Philippines — A global pressure campaign on North Korea propelled by new U.N. sanctions received a boost Sunday from China, the North’s economic lifeline, as Beijing called on its neighbor to halt its missile and nuclear tests.
President Donald Trump’s administration cautiously embraced China’s apparent
cooperation, while putting it on notice that the U.S. would be watching closely to ensure it didn’t ease up on North Korea if and when the world’s attention is diverted elsewhere. But there were no signs the U.S. would acquiesce to China’s call for a quick return to negotiations with North Korea.
The diplomatic wrangling sought to build on the sweeping new sanctions passed by the U.N. Security Council a day earlier — the strongest in a generation, the U.S. said. As diplomats gathered in the Philippines for an annual regional meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Trump was cheering the move. He cited the “very big financial impact” of the sanctions against North Korea and noted that both China and Russia had joined in the unanimous vote.
On Sunday, after a latenight conversation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump tweeted: “Just completed call with President Moon of South Korea. Very happy and impressed with 15-0 United Nations vote on North Korea sanctions.”
“It was a good outcome,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Manila.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, sitting across the table from him, added: “It was a very, very good outcome.”
For the U.S., it was a long-awaited sign of progress for Trump’s strategy of trying to enlist Beijing’s help to squeeze North Korea diplomatically and economically.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, meeting with North Korea’s top diplomat during the gathering in Manila, urged the North to “maintain calm” despite the U.N. vote.
“Do not violate the U.N.’s decision or provoke international society’s goodwill by conducting missile launching or nuclear tests,” Wang said.
He also said, “Of course, we would like to urge other parties like the United States and South Korea to stop increasing tensions.”
Tillerson did not meet with North Korea’s envoy, Ri Yong Ho.
Though China repeated its call for the United States and North Korea to resume talks, the U.S. said that was still premature. And it rejected yet again a Chinese call for the U.S. to freeze joint military exercises with South Korea in exchange for the North halting nuclear development. Pyongyang views the military exercises as rehearsals for an invasion.
“This kind of moral equivalency that’s implied by the freeze for freeze, which is between the North Koreans shooting off missiles that are prohibited and our reasonably defensive exercises that we undertake in our alliance with the South Koreans to protect them from these launches, is not a reasonable kind of a trade,” Susan Thornton, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia, said.
The U.S. warned that it plans to rigorously monitor China’s compliance with the new penalties. Thornton said Beijing has historically cooperated with sanctions after flagrant North Korean violations, then slipped back over time.
“We want to make sure China is continuing to implement fully the sanctions regime,” Thornton told reporters in Manila. “Not this kind of episodic back and forth that we’ve seen.”
Though Tillerson has emphasized the Trump administration’s willingness to sit down with North Korea for negotiations, he’s said that won’t happen until the North agrees to abandon its nuclear aspirations. Even with the new U.N. sanctions that are intended to drive North Korea back to the table, conditions still aren’t ripe for talks, U.S. diplomats said.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono dismissed calls for talks and said the sanctions should be given time to work, according to comments read by spokesman Toshihide Ando at a briefing.
Tillerson has pointedly stated several times that the United States does not seek regime change or a rapid reunification of the two Koreas, which have been in a state of suspended hostility since an armistice was declared in 1953.
Wang, the Chinese envoy, cast Ri’s presence in Manila as a positive, saying it enabled him to “hear the voices from other sides.” Wang said that Ri “also has the right to share his opinions.”
Ri hasn’t spoken publicly since arriving in the Philippines. But a commentary in the North Korean ruling party’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper said the U.S. had disregarded the warning the North sent with its intercontinental ballistic missile tests and was pursuing “desperate efforts” in the form of stepped-up sanctions.
“Now the U.S. mainland is on the crossroads of life and death,” the commentary warned.
The new sanctions could cut off roughly one-third of North Korea’s estimated $3 billion in annual exports, ostensibly denying the nation of funds for its weapons programs. All countries are now banned from importing North Korean coal, iron, lead and seafood products.
The sanctions would also ban “the opening of new joint ventures or cooperative entities with” North Korea, and it would cap the number of North Koreans working in other countries at current levels. Existing joint ventures would be prevented from expanding their operations.
“The price the North Korean leadership will pay for its continued nuclear and missile development will be the loss of one-third of its exports and hard currency,” said Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. “This is the most stringent set of sanctions on any country in a generation.”
Tillerson and Kang said sanctions against North Korea aren’t intended to bring the country down, but rather to lead to peaceful denuclearization.
The U.S. drafted the sanctions resolution and negotiated it with China after North Korea’s unprecedented test of an ICBM in July and a follow-up test weeks later. Those tests sharply escalated U.S. fears that North Korea is a key step closer to mastering the technology needed to strike American soil with a nuclear-tipped missile.
As North Korea’s main ally and biggest trading partner, China’s role is crucial to pressuring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into halting his weapons program.
Many analysts see the North Korean program as too advanced for sanctions to make much difference, and they doubt the country will ever completely give up nuclear weapons.
“You need deeper sanctions over a longer period of time, like years, before you can see if North Korea changes its behavior,” said Thomas Byrne, president of the New York-based Korea Society, a group that promotes understanding between the U.S. and the Korean Peninsula. “The sanctions will have an economic impact but little effect on the strategic intent to develop ballistic missiles.”
Despite deeming North Korea a top security threat, the Trump administration has struggled to find a strategy that differs significantly from what the U.S. has tried in the past. Aside from calling for more sanctions, Trump’s approach has centered on enlisting China and others to lessen ties to North Korea.
Trump’s initial optimism about China’s willingness to help gave way to public exasperation, with Trump saying Chinese President Xi Jinping had “tried” but that it “has not worked out.” Trump’s administration began floating potential plans to punish China for its trade practices in what was widely perceived as a reaction to China’s inaction on North Korea.
But in recent days, the two powers have started to paper over some of those differences. Beijing praised Tillerson for declaring the U.S. wasn’t seeking regime change in North Korea. Trump has held off, for now, on the trade actions. And China joined the 15-0 vote in the Security Council on the new sanctions.
“Who has been carrying out the U.N. Security Council resolutions concerning North Korea? It is China,” Wang said Sunday. “Who bore the cost? It is also China.”
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho (left) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi end their meeting Sunday in Manila, Philippines.