US-China dialogue leaves two sides far apart on North Korea

June 26, 2017 13:24
US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis says the US is frustrated with a North Korea "that provokes and provokes and provokes" and plays outside the rules. Photo: Reuters

The United States and China held the first round of the newly established diplomatic and security dialogue last week with North Korea as the principal topic. The Americans emphasized the need for China to do more.

The Global Times newspaper reported that the dialogue was “the equivalent to that of a ‘two plus two’ dialogue between the US and its allies.” The US, the newspaper said, “has this kind of mechanism with its closest allies such as Japan and Australia.”

The message to America’s allies was obvious: China now has a relationship with the US that is as close as that of any ally.

However, the tone of American officials was quite different. This was made evident by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who headed the US side of the dialogue and who spoke to the press after the meetings concluded.

“China understands that the United States regards North Korea as our top security threat,” Tillerson said. “We reiterated to China that they have a diplomatic responsibility to exert much greater economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime if they want to prevent further escalation in the region.”

Tillerson’s words were especially telling, coming as they did a day after President Donald Trump sent out a tweet on China and North Korea: “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!”

At the dialogue, the Chinese side, led by State Councilor Yang Jiechi, called for an early resumption of talks between the US and North Korea, and called on the US to suspend its military exercises with South Korea in return for the suspension by North Korea of its nuclear and missile activities.

Moreover, China reiterated its opposition to the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system by the US in South Korea and demanded that the deployment be rolled back.

Defense Secretary Mattis made it clear that the US, while it was committed to cooperate, including through the United Nations, would “continue to take necessary measures to defend ourselves and our allies,” suggesting a rejection of the Chinese proposal.

However, pressure on the US to accept China’s “suspension for suspension” proposal is likely to increase. North Korea’s ambassador to India, Kye Chun Yong, told an Indian interviewer that his country was willing “to talk in terms of the freezing of nuclear testing and missile testing, under certain circumstances”.

And in South Korea, Moon Chung-in, special adviser to President Moon Jae-in, said a day after the dialogue in Washington that it was unrealistic to expect North Korea to denuclearize before holding talks. “If we slightly scale back South Korea-US military drills and do not forward deploy US strategic weapons, tensions will be eased and then we can assume that North Korea will not carry out provocations.”

Both the North Korean and South Korean statements were interpreted in China as support for its “suspension for suspension” proposal.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, said last Friday: “We have noted that, in recent time, relevant parties have sent out some positive messages. We think this is of positive significance to easing the tensions on the Korean Peninsula and seeking a final solution through dialogue and negotiation.”

The American position is that North Korea must abandon its nuclear weapons program before any negotiations can begin. This is unrealistic, as the South Korean presidential adviser pointed out.

However, the current environment in the US is highly hostile to talks with North Korea. As Mattis said, the American people, in the aftermath of the death of the college student Otto Warmbier, who was released in a comatose state, are frustrated with “a regime that provokes and provokes and provokes, and basically plays outside the rules, plays fast and loose with the truth”.

That sentiment is understandable. But in the final analysis, the US will need to talk to North Korea if it wants to see a halt in that country’s nuclear weapons program. Now may not be the right time, but American and Chinese leaders will meet next month in Hamburg at the G20 meeting, and discuss North Korea again. Trump will also be visiting China later this year, possibly in November, so there is no lack of opportunities for the US and China to discuss North Korea in the coming months.

Sooner or later, the US will have to bite the bullet and agree to talk to North Korea about ending its nuclear weapons program.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.