Nuclear North Korea
China on North Korea: Don’t Blame Us

With the North Korean nuclear crisis escalating, President Trump has repeatedly accused Beijing of refusing to use its control over Pyongyang to curb the latter’s nuclear program. Today, however, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi denied that implication, blaming rising tensions on Seoul and Washington as much as Pyongyang. Financial Times:

“The two sides are like two accelerating trains coming towards each other with neither side willing to give way,” Mr Wang said. “The question is are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision? Our priority is to flash the red light and apply brakes on both trains.” […]

But he also insisted that “the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula is mainly between [North Korea] and other states”, namely South Korea and the US. Instead of refusing to negotiate with Pyongyang until Kim Jong Un abandons his nuclear programme, Beijing advocates a “dual-track” approach.

“To defuse the looming crisis on the peninsula, China proposes as a first step [that North Korea] suspends its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for a halt of the large-scale US-[South Korean military] exercises,” Mr Wang said.

The Chinese are posing as the responsible actors here, but that disingenuous posture is unlikely to go over well in Washington or Seoul. And Wang’s initial proposal that South Korea and the United States suspend their military exercises, in the uncertain hope that North Korea will play along and engage in productive talks, is likely to be dead on arrival.

Meanwhile, as China deflects the blame for Pyongyang’s activity, it continues to pressure Seoul over its deployment of the THAAD missile defense system. The installation of that system is currently underway, and China has registered its disapproval with coercive economic measures, from shutting down South Korean Lotte stores in China to encouraging boycotts of Korean goods and banning Chinese tour groups from the country. The severity of the Chinese response has surprised many in South Korea, creating the impression that China is devoting more diplomatic energy to petty retaliation over THAAD than actually addressing the North’s nuclear aggression.

Wang’s latest words show how difficult it will be for Trump to solicit China’s cooperation in restraining Pyongyang.  The Chinese ban on coal imports from North Korea offered initial hope that they might be changing tack, but prospects for intensified pressure now seem fainter. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson heads to Asia next week with North Korea high on the agenda; the trip should provide an indicator of whether the United States and China can find common ground on the crisis.

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