A China dilemma: How to respond to North Korea’s nuclear program

December 04, 2017 13:59
The resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis lies in the hands of Pyongyang itself. It has set for itself the goal of becoming a nuclear power, ostensibly to ensure its survival. Photo: Aljazeera

North Korea’s ICBM test on Nov. 29 brought about what are now routine responses -- a pre-dawn National Security Council meeting in Seoul, similar emergency meetings in Tokyo and Washington, as well as urgent telephone consultations among the leaders concerned – American President Donald Trump, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Trump and Abe agreed to step up their response and to urge China to do more. The missile had landed within the waters of Japan’s special economic zone.

There was another party to be consulted: China. Trump telephoned the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, and again urged him to cut off all oil deliveries to North Korea. Again, Xi rebuffed him. China still insists on propping up the Kim Jong-un regime and, in doing so, enabling his nuclear weapons program.

An emergency session of the UN Security Council was held that same afternoon and Nikki Haley, the US ambassador, warned that the latest missile launch had brought the world closer to war, a war, she stressed, that Washington doesn’t want but one in which the North Korean regime “will be utterly destroyed”.

The Chinese representative, Wu Haitao, followed his script and called on all parties to exercise restraint and to “strive for an early resumption of dialogue and negotiations.”

He urged support for the “suspension-for-suspension approach,” under which North Korea would suspend its nuclear weapons program while the US and South Korea suspended joint military exercises.

The trouble is that North Korea has announced that with the launch of Hwasong-15, it had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”

That is to say, North Korea’s goal is already within reach. Suspension now seems almost irrelevant.

True, North Korea has yet to demonstrate that it possesses full reentry technology for an ICBM as well as a precision guidance system. But, these are not insuperable obstacles.

That means that if there is to be a suspension, it has to begin almost immediately. It also means that from the standpoint of those who don’t want to see North Korea permanently armed with nuclear weapons, this is the time to act or else it would be too late. This is a critical moment.

The urgency was underlined by H.R. McMaster, the White House national security adviser, who said over the weekend that the potential for war “is growing each day” and “there’s not much time left”.

Japan, the president of the Security Council in December, is calling a special ministerial meeting on Dec. 15. But, unless one of the main players, namely China, changes its position, the significance of the outcome may be limited.

In a very real sense, the resolution of the ongoing North Korean nuclear crisis lies in the hands of Pyongyang itself. It has set for itself the goal of becoming a nuclear power, ostensibly to ensure its survival.

But are other countries willing to accept North Korea as a nuclear power? Certainly, the Trump administration seems unlikely to meekly accept such an outcome. It is still talking about a possible military solution.

But, regardless of what the future holds, the US needs to make plans for various North Korean contingencies and the formulation of such plans requires China’s cooperation.

During the Obama administration, China simply refused to talk about possible North Korean contingencies. But this has now changed. Hours after the latest ICBM test, American and Chinese officials met in Washington to discuss how the two militaries might communicate in a crisis.

Chinese academics, too, have urged the Chinese government to talk to Washington on possible contingencies, as a sense of urgency has heightened.

Jia Qingguo, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, recently suggested that Beijing may wish to talk to Washington about issues such as who would control North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal if the Kim regime collapses, how China would respond if the US military crossed the 38th parallel into North Korea, how to deal with the flood of North Korean refugees if war broke out, and the role of South Korean or United Nations forces in the restoration of order in North Korea.

China knows that if North Korea were to become a nuclear power, there would be great pressure for Japan and South Korea, and possibly even Australia, to follow suit. China would then find itself surrounded by nuclear powers, not all of whom are friendly.

The situation presents Beijing with a question: how to respond to the growing North Korean crisis, which cannot be contained much longer?

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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.