Five days after the US-Chinese summit at Mar-a-Lago, the luxurious summer retreat of US President Donald Trump, the US president tweeted that “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them.”
Between the summit and the presidential tweet there were persistent reports that the North Koreans would be testing a sixth nuclear bomb and missiles, while the United States and South Korea would stage the largest war games ever on the Korean Peninsula. In addition, and getting closer to the brink, the USS Karl Vinson, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier got orders to reroute and sail towards the East China Sea, in a show of force. The American assessment is that North Korea is working on a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear device and reaching the continental United States.
During the meeting between President Trump and the Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida, the two leaders saw eye-to-eye on how to handle the situation in the Korean Peninsula. There was a consensus that Pyongyang should respect Security Council resolutions related to its nuclear and missiles programmes. Furthermore, they pledged to work for the denuclearisation of the peninsula. National Security Advisor, General Herbert McMaster told ABC’s “This Week”, 16 April, that the US president “will take action to prevent North Korean aggression towards the United States”.
General McMaster in the same TV interview cautioned the North Koreans. He stressed that it would be in the best interest of North Korea “to stop the development of [nuclear weapons] to stop the development of these missiles, and to denuclearise the peninsula”.
To make matters more edgy and tense, the North Korean government emphasised that it possesses a “nuclear deterrent” and would not hesitate to use it to repel any American attack. Han Song Ryol, vice minister of foreign affairs, said — as quoted in The Financial Times — “We have got a powerful nuclear deterrent already in our hands, and we certainly will not keep our arms crossed in the face of a US pre-emptive strike.”
In other words, Pyongyang would defend itself in case the US administration resorts to military action to deal with what President Trump has called the “problem” of North Korea.
Sensing the looming dangers over the peninsula and North East Asia, the Chinese government said a “storm is about to break” in that strategic part of the world. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, said that the situation is on “a knife’s edge”. Wisely enough, he called on the concerned parties to “refrain from provoking and threatening each other… and not let the situation get to an irreversible and unmanageable stage”. Very wise words, indeed. Hopefully, senior officials, both in Washington and Pyongyang, heed such advice. In case — just in case — war breaks out on the peninsula, no one would emerge the winner. It is true that the United States would take out most of the nuclear arsenal and missiles of North Korea. Still, the destruction of Seoul and the industrial sites in South Korea would be devastating, let alone — which is more important — the colossal human toll that would ensue. Also, American troops stationed in both South Korea and Japan would come under immediate threat of North Korean retaliation.
Brinkmanship in North East Asia would prove counterproductive unless the warmongering that the world has been witnessing, with alarm, lately is a prelude to a diplomatic and political solution. We will have to wait till the presidential elections in South Korea, to take place 9 May. The leader of the opposition Democratic Party in Seoul, Moon Jae-in, and the top contender in the South Korean presidential contest, said that military action on the “Korean peninsula cannot happen without Korea’s consent”. He should know better that the South Korean capital would bear the brunt on North Korea’s retaliation against any US pre-emptive attack.
In the days ahead, the Chinese government is expected to play a leading role in regional and international efforts aiming at defusing the near-war situation gripping North East Asia as well as the Pacific region. Already Beijing’s state tabloid, Global Times, urged North Korea on Thursday, 13 April, to abandon its nuclear weapons programme in return for a security guarantee from the Chinese government. Furthermore, the article in this newspaper pledged support for the North Korean regime and for the stability of North Korea if the country agrees to denuclearisation.
The US administration of President Trump should refrain from any aggressive military posturing, to give Chinese diplomacy a chance to negotiate a deal with Pyongyang. It is the only sensible option unless the United States has embarked on a strategy that aims at China, in reality, with North Korea nothing but a stage. Brinkmanship could be devastating for all parties concerned in the Asia-Pacific.
To underscore American commitment to US allies in the Pacific-Asia region, US Vice President Mike Pence went on a four-country tour that started with South Korea Sunday, and was scheduled also to visit Japan, Indonesia and Australia.
The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.