When I sat down with North Korean Ambassador to Thailand Mun Song Mo last week for a rare interview, one question uppermost in my mind was whether there was room for negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington to put an end to the ongoing crisis on the Korea peninsula.
The ambassador was prompt and direct in his response. “How can we negotiate with a country whose leader [Donald Trump], in his speech at the United Nations, threatened to totally destroy North Korea?”
He added: “There will be no negotiation, unless its [the US] hostile policy towards our republic is absolutely abandoned and its root cause of nuclear threat is removed.”
The day after my interview at the North Korean embassy, US President Trump announced he was redesignating North Korea a “state sponsor of terrorism”.
That, in effect, quashed lingering hope that diplomacy might replace rising tensions and mutual threats.
China and Russia have proposed that both sides “freeze” their activities so that negotiations can resume. But the “dual suspension” idea has so far failed to gain traction in Pyongyang and Washington.
Last week, there were signs of a renewing of bonds between China and North Korea when Beijing decided to dispatch a “special envoy” – Song Tao, chief of the Communist Party’s International Department – to Pyongyang.
Officially, Song’s mission was to represent President Xi Jinping and report to North Korean official Choe Rong Hae on the outcome of the recently concluded Communist Party Congress in Beijing.
But a brief statement from Song’s department emphasising the importance of “developing traditional relations”, and adding that the “traditional friendship between China and North Korea represents valuable wealth for their peoples”, triggered speculation that issues other than
the Party congress were raised.
Every word in the statement is being analysed around the world, particularly the statement “both sides must work hard together to promote the further development of relations between the two parties and the two countries to benefit their two peoples”.
But nobody should assume that tension on the Korean peninsula will ease straight after Song’s visit to Pyongyang. China’s own Global Times warned against any premature optimism.
“Song is not a magician,” the state-run daily said in an editorial.
“The key to easing the situation on the peninsula lies in the hands of Washington and Pyongyang. If both sides insist on their own logic and refuse to move in the same direction, even if Song opens a door for talks, the door could be closed any time.”
Song’s trip came only a week after Trump visited Beijing as part of his tour of Asia, where he pressed for greater action to rein in Pyongyang, especially from China, on which North Korea relies for 90 per cent of its trade.
China’s official position on this crucial issue is clear. Beijing has proposed the “double suspension” as the best method of defusing the looming crisis on the peninsula.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi put it this way:
“As a first step, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea may suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the suspension of large-scale US-Republic of Korea military exercises.” Wang made that proposal in a press conference on the sidelines of the annual session of the National People’s Congress.
This would help the parties to break out of the security dilemma and return to the negotiating table, Wang said.
“We may follow the dual-track approach of denuclearising the peninsula on the one hand and establishing a peace mechanism on the other,” he added.
Wang compared North Korea and the US-South Korea axis to two trains on the same track accelerating towards each other.
“Are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision?” he asked. “The priority is to flash the red light and apply the brakes.”
He added that the nuclear stand-off was mainly between North Korea and the United States, but China, as a neighbour with a “lips-and-teeth” relationship with the North, was indispensable to its resolution.
China has a strong commitment to denuclearising the peninsula, maintaining stability there, and resolving the issue peacefully, the minister said.
Beijing had done its best to bring Pyongyang and Washington back to the negotiating table and push forward the six-party talks, Wang said, adding that China had done its part by adopting and implementing UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea.
Wang continued his metaphor by adding that China was willing to be a “railway switchman” to get the issue back on the right track.
For now, though, despite talk from all sides about the need to avoid a war, there are no signs the two trains are slowing.
For Beijing’s “switchman”, this could be yet another mission impossible in its fast-growing role of international diplomacy.