BEIJING — China tried unsuccessfully to calm newly volatile tensions on the Korean Peninsula on Wednesday, proposing that North Korea freeze nuclear and missile programs in exchange for a halt to major military exercises by American and South Korean forces. The proposal was rejected hours later by the United States and South Korea.
“We have to see some sort of positive action by North Korea before we can take them seriously,” Nikki R. Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters after a Security Council meeting in New York on the escalating Korea crisis. Standing beside her, Cho Tae-yul, the South Korean ambassador, said, “This is not the time for us to talk about freezing or dialogue with North Korea.”
The statements by Ms. Haley and her South Korean counterpart came hours after China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, proposed the suspensions during a Beijing news conference, describing them as a way to create the basis for talks that would end North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
The alternative to talks, he said, would be an increasingly perilous standoff that threatened the entire region.
“The two sides are like two accelerating trains coming toward each other, and neither side is willing to give way,” Mr. Wang said. “The question is: Are both sides really prepared for a head-on collision?”
But in what appeared to be a hardening American position on North Korea, Ms. Haley said the United States was re-evaluating its approach to the country and its unpredictable young leader, Kim Jong-un, whom she described as “not rational.”
“I can tell you we’re not ruling anything out, and we’re considering every option,” Ms. Haley said after the Security Council meeting, flanked by Mr. Cho and the Japanese ambassador to the United Nations, Koro Bessho.
At the same time, Ms. Haley sought to reassure China publicly that the United States meant no harm by moving ahead with the deployment of a defensive missile shield system in South Korea, after North Korea’s latest missile launch on Monday. China has condemned the missile shield as a military provocation by the Americans that risked a new arms race in the region.
Developments this week have abruptly escalated regional tensions over the isolated North’s nuclear arms development.
The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, said at a news conference on Tuesday that the priority in the dispute over North Korea’s nuclear program was “to flash the red light and apply brakes.” Credit Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press
At the same time, the North is in a diplomatic standoff with another Asian country, Malaysia, from the Feb. 13 killing of Kim Jong-nam, the North Korean leader’s estranged half brother, in Kuala Lumpur. On Tuesday, Pyongyang — angered by a police investigation that has named several North Koreans as suspects — said that no Malaysians living in North Korea would be allowed to leave the country, and Malaysia quickly responded in kind.
On Wednesday, Mr. Wang said the priority in the dispute over North Korea’s nuclear program was now “to flash the red light and apply brakes.” China’s “suspension for suspension” proposal “can help us break out of the security dilemma and bring the parties back to the negotiating table,” he said.
Doubts that the idea would gain traction were not surprising. North Korea made a similar offer in 2015 that went nowhere.
Mr. Wang’s proposal was China’s latest attempt to regain the initiative on the nuclear issue, which has bedeviled Beijing’s efforts to stay friends with both North and South Korea and prove itself a mature regional power broker.
“The current situation is a challenge for the Chinese government’s diplomacy,” said Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor at Renmin University in Beijing who specializes in North Korea. “The situation in the East Asian region is increasingly complicated, and the possibility of a diplomatic solution to the nuclear missile issue is increasingly slim,” he said, referring to North Korea’s nuclear arms program.
Reining in North Korea has also become a focus for the Trump administration’s dealings with China. Starting next week, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson is to visit Japan, South Korea and China for talks that will focus on “the advancing nuclear and missile threat” from North Korea, the State Department said.
North Korea’s weapons advancements have reached a point where “we do need to look at other alternatives,” Mark C. Toner, a spokesman for the State Department, told reporters in Washington on Tuesday. “And that’s part of what this trip is about, that we’re going to talk to our allies and partners in the region to try to generate a new approach to North Korea.”
But bringing the countries into agreement over initial steps toward peace will not be easy, especially while China is also in a deepening dispute with South Korea and the Trump administration. At the same news conference where he laid out his proposal on Tuesday, Mr. Wang stuck to China’s fierce opposition to the missile defense system the United States began assembling in South Korea this week, known as Thaad, or Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense.
The Chinese government says the system goes far beyond its declared purpose of warding off potential attacks by North Korea and could undermine China’s military security. American and South Korean officials say that that is untrue, and that China should instead focus on halting North Korea’s threats.
“It’s common knowledge that the monitoring and early warning radius of Thaad reaches far beyond the Korean Peninsula and compromises China’s strategic security,” Mr. Wang said at the news conference, which was part of a regular round of briefings during China’s annual legislative session. “It’s not the way that neighbors should treat each other, and it may very well make South Korea less secure.”
North Korea’s state news agency distributed a photo that it said showed the flight of four ballistic missiles that were launched on Monday. Credit Korean Central News Agency, via European Pressphoto Agency
Mr. Wang’s proposal for mutual suspensions was an attempt to give new life to China’s long-running efforts to tamp down confrontation between North and South Korea. China is the North’s only major economic and security partner, but it has also developed strong economic and political ties with South Korea that the missile defense system threatens to rupture.
For years, China hosted six-country talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, which brought together North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
But those talks fell apart in 2009, and North Korea has continued to test nuclear weapons and refine missiles that could eventually carry nuclear warheads as far as the continental United States. North Korea described its launch on Monday of four ballistic missiles as practice for hitting American military bases in Japan.
American officials, and many Chinese experts, have grown skeptical that North Korea would ever seriously contemplate giving up its nuclear weapons.
China’s rift with South Korea and the United States over the missile defense system is likely to embolden North Korea, making it more confident that Beijing would not turn on it, said Shen Dingli, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai who specializes in nuclear proliferation issues.
“The deployment of Thaad has led to a serious deterioration in Chinese-South Korean relations, so North Korea is delighted with that,” Dr. Shen said in an interview. North Korea appears to have passed the point where it would abandon its nuclear arms, he said. “There’s no solution to this, because North Korea won’t give up its nuclear weapons.”
But Mr. Wang said negotiations were the only acceptable way to resolve the dispute.
“To resolve the nuclear issue, we have to walk on both legs,” he said, “which means not just implementing sanctions, but also restarting talks.”
North Korea’s ties to the global financial system are also under renewed pressure. On Wednesday, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or Swift, issued a statement saying it had recently moved to ban North Korean banks from accessing its platform.
Swift operates as part of the backbone of global bank payment processing by providing a communication platform used by central banks and financial institutions around the world.
Several North Korean banks that were subject to sanctions by both the United Nations and the United States had continued as recently as last year to find ways to access the Swift network, according to a report by a United Nations expert panel that was published last week. Swift said it was responding to an enforcement action by the authorities in Belgium, where Swift is based, but it did not say when it moved to block the North Korean banks from its service.
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