[Analysis] S. Korea and US butting heads with China and Russia over tensions

Posted on : 2016-03-10 16:08 KST Modified on : 2016-03-10 16:08 KST
Source of contention is Seoul’s choice to tackle nuclear issue through sanctions alone, without dialogue
South Korean and US vessels in the East Sea during the Double Dragon exercises
South Korean and US vessels in the East Sea during the Double Dragon exercises

The governments of South Korea and US on one side and China and Russia on the other have been moving in different directions since the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2270 imposing what have been called the strongest sanctions in history against North Korea. With Seoul and Washington focusing on pressuring Pyongyang with joint military exercises and their own independent sanction plans, Beijing and Moscow are sounding the alarm over tensions on the Korean Peninsula. A particular focus is the potential impact on the peninsula from the head-on clash between Seoul’s consistently hard-line approach since the resolution’s adoption and Beijing’s calls for balancing sanctions with efforts to preserve stability and pursue dialogue and negotiation. The opposing approaches from major Northeast Asian countries could get in the way of coordination and cooperation in enforcing the resolutions‘ terms.

For now, the biggest concern is instability reaching the boiling point on the peninsula. South Korea and the US separately announced their own North Korea sanctions - the former on Mar. 8, the latter on Mar. 3 - and launched what have been called the largest-ever joint Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercises, which last from Mar. 7 to Apr. 30. North Korea, for its part, announced test-firing for new large-caliber multiple rocket launchers, with leader Kim Jong-un announcing on Mar. 9 that the North had “achieved standardization with a lightweight nuclear warhead for a ballistic missile.”

On Mar. 5, South Korea and the US went ahead with a signing ceremony for an agreement on a Joint Working Group to discuss the potential deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system with US Forces Korea - a measure bitterly opposed by China and Russia.

With tensions mounting, the Chinese government has been quick to take action, using some of its strongest language yet. On Mar. 9, Foreign Minister Wang Yi held telephone discussions with his US counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry. While the ministry declined to give specifics on what it called their “exchange of opinions on international and regional issues, including China-US relations and the situation on the Korean Peninsula,” it’s easy enough to speculate what opinions were exchanged. Speaking at a press conference on Mar. 8 for the National People‘s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Wang said the immediate situation on the peninsula “is an example of ‘unsheathing the sword and drawing the bowstring.’ It runs thick with the smell of gunpowder.”

“If tensions rise to the point where control is lost, it will spell disaster for all of the countries,” he warned.

Wang’s remarks represent two strands in Beijing’s response: stern warnings against attempts to raise tensions on one hand, urging efforts toward turning the situation around with dialogue and negotiation on the other.

Wang also warned that China “cannot sit idly by while the [Korean] peninsula‘s stability is fundamentally destroyed, nor will it sit by while its security interests are harmed without permission.” The message had two aims: deterring armed provocations by North Korea and criticizing the joint South Korea-US military exercises. The Russian Foreign Ministry denounced North Korea’s calls for a “pre-emptive nuclear strike” on Mar. 7, but similarly criticized the exercises, arguing that North Korea “unquestionably feels appropriate concerns about its own security.”

At the same time, Wang made open calls for dialogue and negotiation. “Denuclearization [of the peninsula] is the international community’s goal, while adoption of a peace agreement is the rational interest of North Korea,” he said.

“We need to adopt both approaches side by side and pursue them in a stepwise manner to achieve a comprehensive solution,” he continued.

In more concrete terms, Wang said Beijing was “open to three-party, four-party, or five-party meetings or anything else that is beneficial in bringing Korean Peninsula issues to the negotiating table.” The open reference to “three-party, four-party, or five-party meetings” was very rare for a senior Chinese official. It’s a move that appears aimed at achieving dialogue and negotiation more quickly than Wang hinted with his first open proposal of a two-track approach to denuclearization and a peace agreement on Feb. 17, when he said Beijing wanted “specific discussions at an appropriate time.”

In reprinting the text of Wang‘s NPC/CPPCC press conference on Korean Peninsula issues on its webpage, the Chinese Foreign Ministry attached the title “Sanctions Are a Necessary Means, Stability Is an Urgent Matter, Negotiation Is a Basic Approach.” Similarly, ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said at a regular Mar. 7 briefing that the UNSC resolution should “be enforced in a balanced way rather than skewing in one particular direction [sanctions].” The message is that sanctions should be combined evenly with efforts to ensure political security and pursue dialogue and negotiation. Repeated references to “full-scale implementation of the UNSC Resolution” by Chinese Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Affairs and Six-Party Talks chairperson Wu Dawei were not - despite Seoul’s belief to the contrary - merely about beefing up sanctions. Hong also affirmed Beijing’s position that the resolution should “not have a negative impact on the welfare of North Korea or humanitarian needs.” All of these arguments from Beijing are rooted in the text of Resolution 2270 itself: the preamble states the measures are “not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population,” while Article 49 underscores “the importance of maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula” and Article 50 reaffirms support for the Six-Party Talks and Joint Statement of Sept. 19, 2005.

All the while, the South Korean government has been butting heads with China and Russia over THAAD and joint military exercises, and with Russia in particular over its new sanctions passing that amount to a de facto death sentence on the trilateral Rajin-Hasan project with South and North Korea. By hindering coordination among the chief countries of Northeast Asia, the frictions are certain to hurt the strict enforcement of Resolution 2270 and efforts toward a resolution on the nuclear issue that Seoul desires.

“There’s a growing centrifugal action as South Korea and the US on one side disagree with China and Russia on the other over the aims, scope, and duration of the sanctions in UNSC Resolution 2270,” said one former senior South Korean government figure.

“We’re in a situation where Seoul desperately needs to be thinking about a judicious response instead of relying solely on sanctions,” the former official said.

By Lee Je-hun, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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