Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has urged US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to stay “cool-headed” following the latter’s aggressive response to recent missile tests by North Korea.
Pyongyang has been working towards a functional nuclear missile system for quite some time now, but it made noted progress on March 6th with the launch of four ballistic missiles, three of which entered Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe referred to the launch as a “new stage of threat” while Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, called it “a new birth” for his missile program. The missiles used a powerful new rocket engine which Jong-un said was intended for satellite launches but that many fear would put the United States within range of future Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Jong-un has said his country is close to achieving such ICBM capacity, which Professor Brian Myers of Dongseo University warns would give North Korea leverage to push for peace treaties with the US as well as with South Korea, it’s neighbor and perennial enemy. The recent North Korean tests did not get within range of North America but did violate United Nations resolutions.
Tillerson commented on the North Korean missile tests while in South Korea on a diplomatic tour of East Asia, warning that the US would respond militarily if the threat posed by North Korea’s weapons program escalated to a more dangerous level. Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil CEO and recent appointee of the new Trump administration, said that America’s policy of “strategic patience” towards Jong-un was over and even went so far as to threaten that a preemptive strike was on the table. Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the United Nations, has labeled Jong-un as irrational, and President Trump himself commented via tweet that North Korea was “behaving very badly.”
China, for its part, has historically been North Korea’s closest ally, with Yi imploring the United States and others to “size up the situation in a cool-headed and comprehensive fashion and arrive at a wise decision” rather than move immediately to military response. Yi described the North Korean situation as being at a “crossroads” and pushed for open dialogue and diplomacy in dealing with them. Tensions between Tillerson and Yi have been escalated following the American deployment of its Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea, a measure meant to protect against North Korean attack but that the Chinese government worries could be used to spy on it. This development exacerbates ongoing tensions over how to deal with North Korea; even as Tillerson noted that the US and China shared “a common view that tensions on the [Korean] peninsula are quite high right now,” President Trump tweeted that China “has done little to help” the situation.
Professor Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University has argued that the best policy towards North Korea is to get it to cap its nuclear arsenal at a specific size but that any negotiation will likely require the US to pay the nation money (which might just monetarily encourage more of the same in the future). Lankov notes that the other possible course of action “is a military operation” of the sort that Tillerson name-checked, but that such a policy would be “likely to trigger a second Korean war and [would] permanently damage American credibility as a reliable ally and protector” in the region. John Nilsson-Wright, senior fellow at the think-tank Chatham House, suggested to the BBC other potential responses including to relist North Korea as a State Sponsor of Terrorism or to incentivize it with “formal diplomatic recognition by the US or a peace treaty.” Though there are currently economic sanctions against North Korea by the UN and various individual nations, more aggressive sanctioning of key fiscal intermediaries is another possible plan of response; however, major targets under such a policy would include Chinese banks and Chinese oil companies that work closely with North Korea, thus worsening the already tense relationship between China and the US.