The United States and China offered starkly different strategies Friday for addressing North Korea’s escalating nuclear threat as President Donald Trump’s top diplomat demanded full enforcement of economic sanctions on Pyongyang and urged new penalties. Stepping back from suggestions of U.S. military action, he even offered aid to North Korea if it ends its nuclear weapons program.
The range of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s suggestions, which over a span of 24 hours also included restarting negotiations, reflected America’s failure to halt North Korea’s nuclear advances despite decades of U.S.-led sanctions, military threats and stop-and-go rounds of diplomatic engagement. As the North approaches the capability to hit the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile, the Trump administration feels it is running out of time.
Chairing a ministerial meeting of the U.N. Security Council Friday, Tillerson declared that “failing to act now on the most pressing security issue in the world may bring catastrophic consequences.”
Tillerson said all options “must remain the table,” while emphasizing the need for diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea.
His ideas included a ban on North Korean coal imports and preventing its overseas guest labourers, a critical source of government revenue, from sending money home. And he warned of unilateral U.S. moves against international firms conducting banned businesses with Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, which could ensnare banks in China, the North’s primary trade partner.
“We must have full and complete compliance by every country,” Tillerson said.
Yet, illustrating the international gulf over how best to tackle North Korea, several foreign ministers on the 15-member council expressed fears of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, which has been divided between the American-backed South and communist North since the 1950-53 Korean War. The conflict ended with no formal peace treaty. And while danger always has lurked, tensions have escalated dramatically as the North’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, has expanded a nuclear arsenal his government says is needed to avert a U.S. invasion.
No voice at Friday’s session was more important than that of China, a conduit for 90 per cent of North Korea’s commerce and a country Trump is pinning hopes on for a peaceful resolution to the nuclear crisis. Trump recently hosted President Xi Jinping for a Florida summit and has sometimes praised the Chinese leader for a new-found co-operation to crack down on North Korea and sometimes threatened a go-it-alone U.S. approach if Xi fails to deliver.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China would adhere to past U.N. resolutions and wants a denuclearized peninsula. But he spelled out no further steps his government might consider, despite Tillerson’s assertions in an interview hours ahead of the council meeting that Beijing would impose sanctions of its own if North Korea conducts another nuclear test.
Instead, Wang put forward a familiar Chinese idea to ease tensions: North Korea suspending its nuclear and missile activities, if the U.S. and South Korea stop military exercises in the region. Washington and its allies reject the idea.
“Dialogue and negotiation represent the sensible choice for all parties,” Wang said.
Wang’s sentiment was echoed by the deputy foreign minister of Russia, another regional player that has been as much concerned by America’s nearby military buildup as the North’s nuclear actions.
“Combative rhetoric coupled with reckless muscle-flexing” on North Korea has led to serious fears of war, Gennady Gatilov said.
Amid signs of a possible North Korean nuclear test, the U.S. recently sent a group of warships led by an aircraft carrier to waters off of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea this week conducted large-scale, live-fire exercises on its eastern coast. The U.S. and South Korea also started installing a missile defence system that is supposed to be partially operational within days.
Gatilov of Russia, which typically follows China’s lead on North Korea, backed Beijing’s suspension-for-suspension proposal. He said resolving the nuclear issue through “sanctions and pressure alone on Pyongyang is not possible.” China and Russia wield vetoes as permanent members of the council, meaning any new set of economic restrictions on North Korea will need at least their acquiescence.
Tillerson said the U.S. does not seek regime change in North Korea, and he signalled American openness to holding direct negotiations with Pyongyang. The U.S. also could resume aid to North Korea once it “begins to dismantle its nuclear weapons and missile technology programs,” he said. Since 1995, he added, Washington has provided more than $1.3 billion to the impoverished country.
But the prospects for any more U.S. money going there appeared bleak. Even negotiations don’t seem likely.
Tillerson said the North must take “concrete steps” to reduce its weapons threat before talks could occur. Six-nation nuclear negotiations with North Korea stalled in 2008. The Obama administration sought to resurrect them in 2012, but a deal to provide food aid in exchange for a nuclear freeze soon collapsed.
“In a nutshell, (North Korea) has already declared not to attend any type of talks which would discuss its nuclear abandonment, nuclear disbandment,” Kim In Ryong, North Korea’s deputy U.N ambassador, told The Associated Press. His government declined to attend Friday’s council meeting.