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Foreign Policy

Untying the Korea Nuclear Knot

May 02 , 2017
  • Yu Sui

    Professor, China Center for Contemporary World Studies

The state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula is worryingly risky. On one hand, the UN Security Council has issued multiple resolutions expressing the international community’s resolute stance on denuclearization. On the other hand, North Korea appears determined to press ahead with its nuclear adventure, openly clamoring that it will conduct its next nuclear test “at any time”, and missile launches “every week, every month, every year”.

Since Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, the six-party talks, which had lasted more than a decade, have been shelved, with tensions escalating on the peninsula.

There had been two historical opportunities for solving the Korea nuclear issue.

One was in 1994. Per the US-DPRK Agreed Framework on nuclear issue, North Korea would freeze its nuclear facilities, the US would lead a peninsula energy development organization, build a light-water reactor and supply heavy oil, and compensate for Pyongyang’s corresponding losses – about $4 billion in total. Additionally, the US promised to not be the first to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against North Korea, and to loosen restrictions on trade with and investment in North Korea. With the US labeling North Korea as part of an “Axis of Evil” and “rogue state”, and claiming it has the right to conduct pre-emptive attacks on the latter, however, the agreement has been reduced to a nominatence.

The other was at the beginning of this century. In October 2002, North Korea proposed to sign an agreement of mutual non- aggression, stating it was willing to solve problems via dialogue, so long as the US acknowledged North Korea’s sovereignty, promised not to invade and not to impede its economic development. Then US President George W. Bush simply refused the idea of signing such an agreement.

Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, therefore, derived from its subsequent sense of helplessness under external pressures, its need for self-protection under a perceived threat, its desire for acquiring a powerful means of deterrence, and its thirst for an effective bargaining chip.

Yet given China’s strenuous efforts to maneuver the six-party talks, which started in August 2003, and its promise to take care of North Korean interests from aspects ranging from security to development, Pyongyang has obviously stood on the wrong side of history, against the will of the rest of the world by refusing peaceful engagement.

Facts have proven that North Korea’s nuclear ambition runs beyond self-protection. It is not only a serious threat to regional and world peace, but also a tremendous threat to China’s present and long-term national interests. The site of nuclear explosions Pyongyang has chosen is only dozens of kilometers from the Chinese border.

Due to North Korea’s frequent nuclear/missile tests and South Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD, the situation on the Korean peninsula keeps worsening. Once another war breaks out there, the consequences are unimaginable.

The only solution to the Korea nuclear issue is peaceful consultation. Then there will be conditions, and there must be transparency, fairness and justice.

Now the international community needs to work together to find and create a new opportunity for solving the Korea nuclear issue. All concerned parties should apply restraint, ease tensions, instead of adding fuel to the fire.

China’s bottom line on the matter has been clear to all: First, no matter under what circumstance, there must be no nuclear weapons on the peninsula, either in North or South Korea, either home-made or imported. Second, a military solution is unacceptable to China, because that will end in war and chaos. Third, China’s own rightful national interests must be effectively preserved and guaranteed.

China has repeatedly called on all concerned parties to seriously consider its “dual track”, “double suspension” proposal, so as to find a solution that tackles both the symptoms and root causes, and takes into consideration the reasonable concerns of all stakeholders, and facilitates an early return to dialogue.

According to my understanding, the “dual track” approach and “double suspension” proposal boil down to the following points:

1. The Korean Peninsula must be denuclearized.

2. The people of North Korea have the right to choose their own social and political systems without outside interference.

3. Since Pyongyang refuses to stop nuclear stunts, it must face strict sanctions, including economic ones; but such sanctions are not meant to cause negative humanitarian consequences for DPRK civilians, according to UN Security Council resolutions.

4. On the condition that Pyongyang forsakes nuclear weapons, it will receive reliable security guarantees, as well as proper economic compensation.

5. As a link in peninsula denuclearization, South Korea should stop THAAD deployment, and the US should withdraw military bases and troops stationed in South Korea.

The main obstacle to resolving the North Korea nuclear issue, therefore, is the US-DPRK contradiction in approach.

Through coordinating with the US and Russia, China has been trying hard to peacefully resolve the North Korea nuclear issue. It has faithfully implemented UN Security Council decisions on sanctions, and suspended coal imports from North Korea in February. US Vice President Mike Pence said on April 23, “We truly believe that, as our allies in the region and China bring that pressure to bear, there is a chance that we can achieve a historic objective of a nuclear-free Korea peninsula by peaceful means”.

It is worth mentioning that the six-party talks platform has not been built easily. Eventually, resolution of the peninsula issue can only be achieved within the six-party framework. As long as the room for negotiation still exists, we should not give up.

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