COMMENTARY || Only diplomacy can cool the Korean peninsula

As tensions escalate in Washington, Pyongyang and Beijing, it is high time for all parties to return to the negotiation table.


With North Korea’s threat of more nuclear and missile tests, and a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group sailing toward the Korean peninsula, the prospect of war has returned to East Asia again, but more dangerous than any time in recent memory.

U.S. President Donald Trump, after launching a missile strike against Syria and meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, has turned his attention to North Korea’s efforts in advancing its nuclear capabilities.

“North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them!” Mr. Trump’s tweet repeated his frustration with Beijing for not doing enough to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

But the assumption—shared by successive U.S. administrations and Western countries in general—that China has control and overwhelming influence over North Korea is simply not the case.

Yes, China is Pyongyang’s closest ally, and it continues to provide much-needed support to the North Korean economy, which keeps the regime from collapsing. But these connections, as close as they are, do not translate into direct control of Kim Jong-un personally nor the behaviour of his government.

North Korea is not China’s puppet. In fact, the Chinese leadership has been trying to manage a complex and unpredictable partner for years, but with only limited success.

Beijing has to walk a fine line between persuading the North not to pursue nuclear weapons and not being seen as colluding with the United States and Japan to undermine its security. Mr. Xi may be extremely upset with North Korea’s intensified nuclear tests, but he has few options in terms of leverage. A failed regime in Pyongyang, while satisfying U.S. strategic interest, may bring an unmanageable crisis very close to the Chinese capital, something Beijing will not allow to happen.

If China is unable or unwilling to “help” according to the U.S. preferences, Mr. Trump’s “armada” parade of a potential military solution will lead to disastrous consequences.

The U.S. may bomb Syria at will, which has no credible capabilities to retaliate, but an attack on North Korea will certainly trigger a massive counterstrike by Pyongyang against U.S. forces stationed near Seoul, South Korea’s capital city of 10 million residents, and within range of North Korea’s 11,000-strong artillery forces. The Kim regime has threatened to launch a nuclear attack against the United States.

U.S. military action in the Korean peninsula will also put it in direct confrontation with China, which has a mutual-defence treaty with North Korea that is still in effect.

While U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson communicated his interpretation of President Xi’s understanding “that the situation has intensified and has reached a certain level of threat that action has to be taken,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry officially denied such a change of attitude. Mr. Xi himself felt the urgency of setting the record straight by calling Mr. Trump personally on Tuesday night, emphasizing Beijing’s willingness to work with Washington on North Korea, but only through peaceful means.

While the Trump administration is beating the drums of war, tightening sanctions against North Korea and pressuring Beijing further with a carrot (trade deal) and stick (punishing Chinese entities dealing with North Korea) approach, it is high time for all parties to return to the negotiation table for a diplomatic solution.

In the short term, Pyongyang should halt its temptation to conduct another nuclear explosion, which is likely scheduled for April 15, on the 105th birthday of young Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, while Washington should suspend its expanding military buildup near the peninsula.

In the medium term, key players in the region should reconvene under the former six-party talks mechanism, or something similar, to work out the terms for Pyongyang to suspend its nuclear and missile program.

In the long term, the U.S. should take the bold but not unreasonable step to recognize North Korea diplomatically, make the transition from the 1953 ceasefire agreement to a peace treaty and stop making military or regime change threats in exchange for the North abandoning its nuclear program for good.

Wenran Jiang is a political science professor at the University of Alberta and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington.

This op-ed originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.