COMMENT China can defuse North Korea time-bomb
By Joseph R DeTrani
North Korea's missile launch and nuclear test last month and the resultant UN Resolution sanctioning the country opened a dangerous chapter in relations with North Korea and its young, new leader. In rapid succession, North Korea has escalated tension exponentially, with threats to pre-emptively strike the US with nuclear weapons; with a decision to scrap the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War and cessation of the Red Cross hotline on the demilitarized zone (DMZ) with South Korea.
On a daily basis, North Korea spews invective at South Korea, the United States and the international community, with no end in
sight. The leadership in Pyongyang exhorts its people to prepare for war, to endure additional hardship as North Korea sets a course for conflict.
South Korea's new government has been clear in warning North Korea that any type of an attack against the South will result in an overwhelming military response, with the South Korean military making necessary preparations.
The US has been equally clear: any attack will result in a crushing response. The US decision to spend US$1 billion to deploy additional ballistic missile interceptors along the Pacific Coast is smart contingency planning as North Korea continues to develop its long-range ballistic missile capabilities, to include its long-range mobile missile, the KN-08.
The likelihood that even a minor miscalculation could escalate into military conflict with North Korea is real. Such a conflict could escalate quickly, with unimaginable devastation. Our objective now has to be insuring that we don't stumble into such a conflict.
China's new leadership team can insure that this doesn't happen, similar to what they did in April 2003, when China hosted trilateral talks between the US, North Korea and China. At that time, the situation on the Korean Peninsula was tense and deteriorating quickly. North Korea had withdrawn from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), threatened to abandon the 1953 armistice, entered South Korean airspace with a jet fighter, intercepted a US reconnaissance aircraft and threatened to make Seoul a sea of flames. The April 2003 trilateral talks defused this tense situation, with all parties agreeing to the establishment of the six-party talks.
China's intervention is again necessary. The new Xi Jinping leadership team in China can defuse this impending disaster by getting North Korea to sit down with the US and South Korea to determine if resumption of international talks is still viable.
The new State Councilor responsible for foreign affairs, Yang Jiechi, and new Foreign Minister Wang Yi are experienced officials who have spent years trying to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue. Yang Jiechi, the former minister of foreign affairs and former ambassador to the US, knows the importance of achieving a peaceful resolution, while insuring that eventual denuclearization is accomplished.
Failure to accomplish this goal will result in a nuclear arms race in the region, with attendant nuclear proliferation issues. Wang Yi previously was China's lead negotiator with the six-party talks with North Korea; he has worked these issues and appreciates the need for a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue with North Korea. Wang Yi's recent posting as China's ambassador to Japan gave him first hand access to Japan's sense of vulnerability if North Korea retains its nuclear weapons and the likelihood that Japan would feel obliged to develop its own nuclear weapons.
The upcoming appointment of Cui Tiankai as the new ambassador to the US is another positive development. Cui Tiankai also was engaged with the six-party talks and was a central figure in the drafting of the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement that committed North Korea to nuclear dismantlement in exchange for security assurances, economic assistance and the eventual normalization of relations.
Thus China's three most-senior foreign policy officials all have rich experience with the North Korea nuclear issue and all appreciate the need to resolve this issue peacefully, insuring that denuclearization eventually is accomplished.
Hopefully, China will take decisive action with North Korea and, working with this new leadership team, convince North Korea to return to negotiations and commit to nuclear dismantlement, in line with the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement. Time is of the essence.
Joseph R DeTrani, president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a nonprofit organization, was the Special Envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea from 2003-2006. He was the ODNI North Korea Mission Manager from 2006-2010 and until January 2012, Director of the National Counterproliferation Center. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and are not representative of any US government department, agency or office.