If the Chinese or anyone else imagined that the sanctions resolution recently passed by the UN Security Council would calm tensions in the Korean Peninsula, they must by now be disabused of that illusion.
Though there have been no tests by North Korea since the UN Security Council vote – whether of ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons – the rhetoric instead of calming down has become heated. Moreover for once it is Washington rather than Pyongyang that has taken the initiative in the war of words.
Thus after days of unwise bragging by President Trump about the UN Security Council resolution – which he claims (wrongly) to have sponsored, and which – to their intense irritation – he has “thanked” the Chinese and Russians for – we have had first President Trump’s “fire and fury” comment – which by the way looks to me calculated rather than spontaneous – and an almost equally belligerent statement from the US’s Defense Secretary General Mattis.
By now it should be obvious that there is nothing that delights the North Korean leadership more than calling the US’s bluff, so their response – wild and reckless threats of a missile demonstration around the US’s base in Guam – was exactly as might have been expected.
The US in turn is now responding by leaking plans of its “best of bad options” – attacking North Korea with its B1 bombers – even as everyone acknowledges that such a step is more likely to provoke North Korea than deter it.
It is difficult to discern much method in these actions, but on the assumption that the US has not entirely taken leave of its senses and that there is some thinking behind what it is saying and doing, it is possible to explain them in one of two ways
(1) President Trump and his administration have convinced themselves that it really was their threats and bluster which got the Chinese to agree to the sanctions resolution – even though that is certainly wrong – and that this has emboldened them to raise the temperature further in the belief that by doing so this will increase pressure the Chinese to give them more;
(2) President Trump and his administration have been spooked by the report from the Defense Intelligence Agency – uncorroborated though that is, and based on sources we can only guess – that North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme has advanced much faster than expected, so that North Korea really does now have the capability to strike the US, and are overreacting to this news.
Of course these two explanations are not mutually exclusive, but on balance my opinion is that the more likely of the two – or the more important of the two – is (2).
Regardless, what is clear is that the Chinese are becoming increasingly exasperated and angry about this escalation of the rhetoric coming from Washington. That this is so is confirmed by commentaries which have in China’s official media, notably the People’s Daily and Global Times.
Turning first to Global Times, an editorial there makes the obvious point that the US can never win a shouting match with North Korea for the simple reason that whilst every threat North Korea makes is immediately transmitted to the people of the US, the North Korean government’s total control of information means that the North Korean people will only hear of US threats against their country if the North Korean governments wants them to
The US can’t usually gain the upper hand in this war of words, as Pyongyang chooses whatever wording it likes, and what Washington says may not be heard by North Korean society. But US opinion has paid great attention to everything North Korea says.
The People’s Daily then made crystal clear China’s total opposition to US military action against North Korea
However, the bottom line on the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula is that there must not be any armed conflict there. There is no room for any related party to play with fire on the issue.
Exercising restraint is needed for making responsible choices to ensure peace, particularly at a moment approaching crisis
In truth it is little short of incredible that the military option against North Korea – a country which is now a nuclear power – is even being discussed. Even some of Washington’s staunchest media allies understand its utter folly. Here for example is what the London Times has to say about it in an editorial published today
If it really came to a pre-emptive US strike against Pyongyang, it is South Korea that would feel most of the fire and fury. North Korea has heavy artillery within shooting distance of Seoul, home to 25 million people. Despite the general anxiety about Kim’s intentions, it would be difficult indeed for the White House to sustain regional support for a US-led war…..
……An all-out attack on North Korea would certainly bring the country to its knees, given the overwhelming firepower of the US. The costs in civilian lives and the squandering of trust in the US in the region and across the world would make it a pyrrhic victory and an extraordinary tragedy. The other military option of limited punitive non-nuclear strikes every time Kim tests a missile would merely escalate the conflict without stopping the dictator. Attempting to topple the regime from within is, given Kim’s tight grip on the security machine, unlikely to succeed.
The People’s Daily then goes on to point out that it is US intransigence – specifically the US’s failure to abide by the agreements it reached with Pyongyang in the 1990s, and its refusal to negotiate with North Korea since then – which have brought the present situation about
It is fact that the DPRK missile and nuclear programs stalled during bilateral and multilateral talks, but multiplied over the past nine years since the six-party talks came to grinding halt, during which the United States sought to pressure and sanction Pyongyang.
Global Times for its part makes the point that all the threats and sanctions the US has thrown at North Korea have failed to prevent or even slow down its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme
Since 2006 when North Korea conducted the first nuclear test, the US and North Korea have been engaged in a longstanding battle of wills. As North Korea’s nuclear and missile technologies develop, it is more difficult for the US to win the battle over North Korea. Washington has underestimated Pyongyang’s disregard for all the prices it has to pay in its pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles.
Yet despite the dismal failure of this approach, the US still persists with it, still expecting in the face of all experience that will time succeed
However, Washington only wants to heighten the sanctions and military threats against Pyongyang, which is adding fuel to the flames. The North Korean nuclear issue is heading toward confrontation.
More and more analysts tend to believe that no matter what warnings the US sends or however tough the UN Security Council sanctions are, there is little possibility of Pyongyang stopping its missile launches.
Both Global Times and the People’s Daily then point to the only feasible solution to the crisis: the resumption of direct talks between North Korea and the US. Both however make the point that in order for these talks to succeed the US must bring itself to acknowledge North Korea’s security concerns.
Here is how Global Times puts it
North Korea has almost been completely isolated by the outside world. Under such extreme circumstances, Pyongyang will weigh all its possible options. Washington should stimulate Pyongyang’s desire to engage with the outside world and return to the international community…..
Now it is time the US seriously responds to North Korea’s concerns for national security.
Whilst the more authoritative People’s Daily goes further and expresses itself in more detail, setting out clearly the nature of North Korea’s security concerns and the North Korean realities the US must accept
….. the Untied States, it should commit itself to realizing the fundamentals it has recently reiterated on the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula, including seeking no regime change in the DPRK nor a speedy Korean reunification.
It is advised that Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang take into serious consideration China’s proposal that they start from addressing their pressing security concerns to build up mutual trust, effectively paving the way for restoring talks.
The People’s Daily also restates what China sees as the essential precondition for the success of any talk
Pyongyang should suspend its ballistic missile and nuclear programs while Washington and Seoul suspend their joint military drills.
The alternative is a drift towards armed confrontation in which North Korea is outmatched by the US but arguably has far less to lose. Here is how Global Times explains it
Despite overwhelming strength of the US, Pyongyang can risk everything if there is a showdown between it and Washington. The US should avoid such a scenario and it needn’t feel disgraced because of it.
(bold italics added)
To the Chinese all this must seem so obvious that they are probably baffled by the US leaders’ inability to understand it even when it is so patiently spelt out for them.
Like the Russians the Chinese – highly realistic and rational people that they are – probability find it difficult to understand how the constant need to appear “strong” and “tough” drives the actions of US politicians, even when those actions lead to results which are totally – and predictably – disastrous for the US.
The simple fact is that no-one loses an election in the US because they are perceived to be “strong” and “tough”, or wins an election when they are perceived to be “weak” and “soft”, and that fact is enough to precondition the US to seek confrontation rather than compromise.
One however senses in these commentaries that Chinese patience with the US is now wearing extremely thin. With the Chinese perhaps sensing that opinion in East Asia is turning against Washington on the Korean issue, Chinese willingness t0 go on working with Washington on the Korean issue may be near its end point.