Home GRASP GRASP/Korea Asia Unbound Don't Buy China's Peace Plan for North Korea

Asia Unbound Don't Buy China's Peace Plan for North Korea

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CFR experts give their take on the cutting-edge issues emerging in Asia today.
In a matter of weeks, all of China’s fears have come to a head on the Korean Peninsula. At an airport in Malaysia in mid-February, the exiled half-brother of North Korea’s ruler was assassinated with a nerve agent, reminding the world that the Hermit Kingdom is run by a paranoid and violent regime. Closer to home, North Korea conducted two rounds of ballistic missile tests in stark violation of UN Security Council resolutions. In response, the United States, South Korea, and Japan all vowed to tighten military ties and step up pressure on Pyongyang, underscored by the initial deployment, much to China’s dismay, of a new U. S. missile defense system in South Korea.
Leaders in Beijing had reason to be nervous. An unpredictable ruler in North Korea was once again tempting war on the Peninsula, which would be disastrous for China in the form of refugees flooding across its border and loose nukes on its doorstep. In addition to the immediate crisis, a collapsing North Korea would likely result in a unified country led by a U. S.-friendly government in Seoul, removing China’s strategic buffer that keeps the United States and its South Korean ally at a more comfortable distance. At the end of the day, Beijing isn’t happy with Pyongyang’s saber rattling, but trying to manage a nuclear North Korea remains preferable to rolling the dice with instability.
This is why China’s foreign minister Wang Yi, at a news conference in Beijing last week, proposed a deal to lower tensions and get the parties back to the table. Under the rubric of a “double suspension,” China recommended that North Korea halt its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for the United States and South Korea cancelling major military exercises.
At first glance, the proposal has its appeal. It’s hard to argue, after all, that the current approach is working: North Korea conducted two nuclear weapon tests and 24 missile tests in 2016 alone, and is reportedly poised to launch its first trial of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States. Returning to negotiations and freezing North Korea’s programs, so the argument goes, may be less virtuous than outright denuclearization, but it’s both a more realistic goal and better than the alternative of allowing North Korea to march toward a much larger nuclear arsenal with more sophisticated missiles to deliver them.

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