The situation on the Korean Peninsula was no doubt a key topic during US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s talks with Chinese leaders during his first official visit to Beijing.
In the ongoing “Foal Eagle” and “Key Resolve” exercises, which rally 300,000 US and South Korean troops, Washington is not only showing its military muscle to Pyongyang, but also declaring the end of the past 20 years of “strategic patience”, and the Trump administration’s “resolve and determination” to adopt a new approach.
Through long-term buildup and escalation, the problem has become a persistent difficulty and hot spot in global governance and international politics. In recent years, North Korea has constantly clamored to build capabilities for “pre-emptive” nuclear strikes and conducted multiple nuclear and missile tests, directly threatening peace and stability in Northeast Asia and beyond. In Asia and the rest of the world, countries have unanimously pushed for Korean Peninsula denuclearization and non-proliferation.
Yet the reality is, North Korea’s nuclear/missile capabilities have reached a critical stage. Pyongyang may soon make major breakthrough in both miniaturized nuclear warheads and long-range ballistic missiles. Once it becomes capable of attacking the continental US, it is well within people’s imagination that Washington may carry out targeted elimination of Pyongyang’s most potent weapons and military facilities. From the perspective of pure military tactics, however, there is no surefire plan for doing that. For example, Pyongyang has made significant headway in solid-state-fuel strategic missile technologies. Such missiles not only boast high mobility, but can be launched quickly. Besides, the North’s artillery attack alone can do considerable harm to South Korea. The Trump administration will have to reconsider its Korea policies given such concerns.
The inflammable conditions on the Korean Peninsula compelled the Democratic and Republican parties to reach a rare consensus in the US Congress, perhaps the only consensus among the members and with the new president. The most specific and explicit message the Trump team has released regarding foreign policy has been that the past 20 years of “strategic patience” for North Korea was a failure. Securing a mechanism to efficiently resolve the US-DPRK dispute has hence become an imperative task.
The present state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula is highly complicated and sensitive. Armed conflict may break out any moment, and the situation allows for no “policy void”. The North Korea nuclear issue needs to be considered in the context of overall US Asia-Pacific policies. However, before Washington could communicate with concerned parties regarding the key points, approach, and mechanism for a political resolution of the issue, the US has unexpected driven further militarization of the Korean Peninsula. The US State Secretary’s first Asia trip has again consolidated US-Japan-South Korea military cooperation. On one hand, it raised US-Japan cooperation to an unprecedented level. The US will also help Japan enhance missile-attack capabilities, which will not only provide an opportunity for the Abe administration to continuously boost Japanese military prowess and capabilities for pre-emptive attacks, but also give it additional motivation to challenge its pacifist constitution. On the other hand, the US has reaffirmed its military alliance with South Korea. It accelerated the THAAD deployment in South Korea and constantly upgraded coordination of anti-missile mechanisms in Japan and South Korea, and may even deploy nuclear weapons again in South Korea.
It is worth notice that Pyongyang has adopted nuclearization as its foremost goal precisely because of its sense of insecurity deriving from US policies. Its determination to do whatever it takes to develop nuclear weapons is the derivative, evolution and escalation of that sense of insecurity. A cool-headed analysis of present US-DPRK relations, finding a proper starting point for breaking the vicious circle of US-DPRK hostility that has lasted more than 20 years, and restarting negotiations are critical for sustaining the process of denuclearization. Though we are way past the best time for making Pyongyang forsake its nuclear program, it is still possible for North Korea to fulfill its commitment to all-round verification of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula (i.e. obligations set forth in the Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of Six-Party Talks reached on Sept. 19, 2005) in exchange for ending hostility and restarting talks with the US at the level of security issues. Over the years, North Korea has had to make difficult choices between preserving national security, political power and developing economy and improving people’s livelihoods. Its single-minded pursuit of nuclear capabilities, at the price of the national economy and people’s livelihoods, is sinking the country into a dangerous, unsustainable whirlpool.
Sixty-four years have passed since the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed. On one hand, the pain that war inflicted on the countries and peoples involved is far from over. On the other hand, the lingering sense of insecurity originating from the state of “truce” will keep both the region and world in harm’s way.
China is a close neighbor of both Koreas. The US has tremendous influence on the Peninsula. Realizing peace on the Korean Peninsula is an important platform for China-US cooperation. It is thus consoling to see the Chinese foreign minister and US secretary of state reach a general consensus regarding the Peninsula through in-depth discussion. Both resolutely advocate denuclearization of the Peninsula, pledge to strictly implement UN resolutions and to continue striving for peaceful resolution. Let us hope, through the candid collaboration between China and the US, as well as all others, peace will prevail on the Korean Peninsula.