Is there hope for peaceful settlement of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue?

Updated:2017-12-25 08:57:54

Cai Meng/China Daily

  The Democratic People's Republic of Korea's sixth nuclear test and multiple intercontinental ballistic missile tests this year have led to rising concern in the United States that it's approaching the capability threshold of launching a nuclear attack on the US mainland. The US wants to use greater military intimidation and economic sanctions against the DPRK. And in the absence of any peace talks, which every United Nations Security Council resolution has called for, the Korean Peninsula nuclear crisis has turned into a major security challenge.

  Is there still hope of peaceful settlement?

  Since 2006 when the DPRK conducted its first nuclear test, the UN Security Council has adopted 10 resolutions on sanctions, with the second last, Resolution 2375, banning 90 percent of its trade which is estimated to fall to about $2 billion in 2018, about the level of the late 1990s. Resolution 2397, which was adopted by the UN Security Council on Dec 22, has lowered the annual ceiling of refined petroleum product exports to the DPRK from 2 million to 500,000 barrels, and capped crude oil exports to the DPRK at the level of 4 million barrels a year. These figures are only about half of China's daily import. In addition, the US and its allies have imposed unilateral sanctions on the DPRK to prevent any financial, investment and service exchanges from the outside world.

  These measures have put the DPRK in a very difficult situation, yet seem not being able to stop its nuclear and missile program. Instead, they have made the DPRK more determined. And by deliberately showcasing its progress in nuclear warhead miniaturization and ballistic missile technologies, it is defying all pressures and calls from the outside world.

  The DPRK's economy isn't much worse off than before, growing by around 1 percent in the previous two years, and its grain output grew by 7 percent, reaching 4.81 million metric tons in 2016, the highest since the mid-1990s. Plus, with the humanitarian assistance, it can meet its people's minimum needs.

  Why over a decade of sanctions have failed to force the DPRK to comply?

  There can be a long list of reasons. For the DPRK, this is a national security matter, and there is no convincing alternative. On the part of the US and its allies, they are often distracted from the nuclear issue, paying more attention to the DPRK's domestic wrongdoings and have even started believing the regime would collapse under tough sanctions. They also believe any compromise in peace talks would be seen as condoning the regime.

  The Korean Peninsula nuclear issue has now entered a dangerous stage like a fast train in a dark tunnel. When nearing the end of the tunnel, one may not see the end of the problem but the beginning of more troubles. The stake is high for the security of the region and for the credibility of the non-proliferation regime.

  Is there a way out?

  Since the root cause is hostility, the US, which is a key party, should try to ease, instead of heightening, the hostility. While imposing pressure and sanctions, it needs to leave an opening to the DPRK by launching peace talks, offering necessary diplomatic compromises and seriously considering the DPRK's security appeals.

  The US likes to talk about military option, but the fact that it has allowed the issue to drag on for so long indicates that a decision on war is very hard given the potential cost and unpredictable consequences. But its act of threat and rhetoric of war have scared the DPRK into believing that achieving nuclear capability is the only way it can protect itself.

  Facing such dilemma, does the US want to continue deceiving itself and keep dragging on?

  For China, sanctions are necessary but they would work only when the door to peace talks is open. As pointed out by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, applying sanctions and facilitating talks should proceed simultaneously.

  The US should adjust its policy objective and try to bring the situation to the peace track. China has proposed the "suspension for suspension" initiative, that is, the DPRK suspending nuclear and missile tests in exchange for the US and the Republic of Korea suspending their large-scale military exercises, to give peace talks a chance.

  China-US coordination is essential. Since US President Donald Trump took office, China and the US have maintained coordination and cooperation on the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue. In this process, China has shown plenty of good faith and paid a high price. A bigger test, however, is whether the two countries can truly coordinate to handle international challenges, which requires deeper and more stable strategic trust.

  During Trump's visit to China in November, President Xi Jinping gave him a full account of China's position on the Korean Peninsula issue. The two sides expressed commitment to the international nonproliferation regime, and denuclearization of the peninsula-and agreed that neither side would recognize the DPRK as a nuclear-weapon state.

  They also agreed to keep up the pressure on the DPRK to abandon its nuclear and missile activities by implementing the UN Security Council resolutions. And they agreed to resort to dialogue and negotiations to resolve the issue peacefully and address the legitimate concerns of all parties, as well as stay in close touch and update each other on the measures that they would take.

  But the two sides have differences, too. First, China disapproves of a military solution. Second, China views sanctions as a means to advance peace talks and prefers focusing on the nuclear issue. Third, China opposes any moves by the US and its allies to undermine China's security interests, for example, the deployment of the US' Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antimissile system in the ROK.

  China has faithfully implemented the UN sanctions. For example, since last February, Chinese institutions have banned or restricted imports of coal, iron and lead, as well as ores, and textiles from the DPRK, and exports of condensed oil and refined oil products to it. No joint ventures are allowed with DPRK entities or individuals. And Chinese financial authorities will conduct retroactive investigations into relevant DPRK individuals and entities.

  These steps are not without costs. Many Chinese companies have suffered huge losses. Also, sanctions have damaged China's relations with the DPRK.

  China is firmly committed to denuclearization, peace and stability on the peninsula and will carry out its international obligations and engage in close coordination with the US as well as Russia, the ROK and other countries.

  The peninsula nuclear issue calls for reflections on a new order in Northeast Asia. China's diplomatic objectives include building a community with a shared future for mankind. This provides new philosophical thinking for achieving common security on the peninsula.

  China doesn't want to see war, chaos, nuclear proliferation and pollution, or a refugee wave on the peninsula. There is no winner in a war. We need to take a fresh look at and adopt a new approach to security in Northeast Asia and understand that our future is tied together.

  If the US and its allies refuse to "live and let live", they may never see the need for compromise.

  The window for peaceful settlement isn't completely closed and the current crisis should be turned into an opportunity. Pressure should be applied in a comprehensive and smart way, accompanied with sincere offer for talks, accepting the DPRK as an equal sovereign state and addressing its concern over security and development.

  The DPRK should also view the current situation in a sober way and seize the opportunity to return to talks. There have been some new developments lately as signals for talks are being sent out both from the DPRK and the US. Should the peace talks start, there would be hope for avoiding war and finding the path to a solution instead of everyone losing out. It will take all the parties' sincere efforts to come out of the dark tunnel. In doing so, we might be able to build all-inclusive security architecture in the region, in which every country's security will be ensured.

  The author is chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People's Congress of China and former vice-minister of foreign affairs.