China must act now on North Korea’s WMD

opinion May 02, 2017 01:00

By Yang Sung-chul

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On May 9, the Korean people will elect a new president. His or her most urgent task will be to take the initiative, especially in inter-Korean relations at this eleventh hour. For this initiative, China’s input is vital; it should take drastic measures in dealing with North Korea. It should be in the same boat as South Korea and the United States. 

The new initiative is in essence a two-track approach. One, the sanctions and pressures against North Korea, being implemented by the Republic of Korea, the US, and other friendly nations must continue uninterrupted. Two, inter-Korean, bilateral and multilateral dialogue with North Korea will resume only when the latter accepts a set of steps to reverse the present course of its weapons of mass destruction programs. 

At this moment, military tension on the Korean Peninsula is at an all-time high. On the surface at least, the present situation reminds me of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, although the differences between the two are vast and fundamental. 

Then, the US and the Soviet Union had virtually little or no relations with each other except for their ideological and strategic rivalry. By contrast, now the Sino-American cultural, economic, financial, and trade relations are interdependent, save for security matters. North Korea’s border with China is 1,420 kilometres long, a distance 5.7 times longer than the DMZ that separates North from South Korea.

For one thing, North Korea’s failed ballistic missile launch a day after military parade to mark Kim Il-sung’s birthday on April 15 deserves scrutiny. The cause of this and earlier failed launches, be they “the possibility of foreign sabotage” or “the presence of a hidden Washington hand”, is a serious matter.

US Vice President Mike Pence warned North Korea on his first visit to South Korea on April 16 that the era of strategic patience is over. The two-month South Korea-US annual joint military exercise ended on Sunday. 

At this moment also, sanctions against North Korea’s reckless nuclear and ballistic missile tests by the United States, South Korea’s only formal military ally, UN Security Council, EU and Asean member states and other concerned countries are in effect. 

To quote Bruce Klingner’s analogy, until Kim Jong-un ceases his nuclear activities, the sanctions of “a slow python constriction” and of “a swift kick to the groin” must continue. At a glance North Korea’s fortress, armed with nuclear and ballistic missiles, looks impregnable. China holds the key to cracking a hole in Kim Jong-un’s “steel drape of paradise on Earth.” 

I have one question for the present Chinese leadership. Does Xi Jinping realise that if China fails to take drastic steps to stop and ultimately dismantle Kim Jong-un’s WMD development, it will suffer costly economic and strategic damage? China must impose concrete and effective sanctions against North Korea, and stop its intermittent cat-and-mouse game while using the same old diplomatic and political rhetoric. 

With the above question in mind, I have four critical pieces of advice with a prescription for China in particular reference to Kim Jong-un’s lethal WMD game of chicken. 

First, North Korea’s WMD threats are multidirectional. This makes China vulnerable to Kim Jong-un’s caprice. These menaces are directed at South Korea, Japan and the United States, but they also pose an existential strategic hazard to China. 

Second, China is not immune from WMD disasters in North Korea similar to the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the US, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union, and the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster in Japan. Thus, if such tragedies erupt in North Korea, China would be the first to suffer human and industrial collateral damage. 

Third, China’s clinging to North Korea as a traditional “buffer zone” strategic asset is passe in this age of high-tech cyber and electronic warfare. Worse still, the Kim Jong-un regime’s antics will lead to unintended consequences for China. Further strengthening of the US-Japan security alliance, escalating military tensions in the Korean Peninsula, and reinforcing of the South Korea-US military alliance are cases in point. 

Fourth, is the nuclear-armed North Korea so vital to China that she would even risk providing a rationale for South Korea and Japan to rethink the nuclear options beyond the US extended and expanded nuclear deterrence and triggering new nuclear arms race in East Asia? 

Finally, this is my prescription. While sanctions against North Korea are on-going, China should give North Korea a one-year moratorium. She should impose a step-by-step deadline of North Korea’s energy and financial lifelines to reverse its WMD programmes so that it can re-enter the international community. 

China must ensure that North Korea adheres to the terms of this moratorium. Specifically, North Korea must stop its nuclear and ballistic missile tests, freeze nuclear programs (plutonium and uranium), rejoin IAEA, NPT and its Safeguards Agreement, allow the IAEA inspectors and surveillance equipment into North Korea, and ultimately dismantle its WMD programmes in toto. 

If North Korea complies with the above Chinese moratorium, then the inter-Korean and other dialogue can resume with the aim of unifying Korea. 

To implement this new policy agenda, South Korea’s new president must seek summits with Donald Trump and Xi Jinping at the earliest possible date. 

Sound impossible? But politics, including diplomacy, is the art of making the impossible possible. 

Yang Sung-chul, a former South Korean ambassador to the US, is senior adviser of the Seoul-based Kim Dae-jung Peace Foundation.

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