The North Korean Agenda in the Xi-Trump Summit
Photo Credit: Bloomberg
By Tai Wei Lim

The North Korean Agenda in the Xi-Trump Summit

Apr. 07, 2017  |     |  0 comments

There is a good opportunity for peace-making in the Xi-Trump Summit in geopolitical terms. North Korea is high on the agenda of the Xi-Trump meeting. The US is urging China to exercise its traditional friendship and influence on North Korea to persuade the regime to tone down its missile development and reverse its intention to own weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). This is a development that all parties in that region have welcomed. The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is a development that all major powers in that region covet.

As a sign of bilateral warmth, US President Donald Trump is extending a warm welcome to Chinese President Xi Jinping at his own Trump Organization’s Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago. President Xi and his administration have expressed good intentions to work with their US counterparts. The atmosphere is positively value-added and cautiously optimistic.

Ahead of the summit, President Trump indicated he has respect for China and that China is ready to do business with the new administration. Both countries share the worldview of maintaining political stability for global economic development. These are mature and ripe conditions for peace-making.

There are genuine concerns that the North Koreans are close to developing a missile-deliverable nuclear arsenal. In recent times, they have tested a hydrogen bomb. It could also be a typical nuclear bomb that has been enhanced with fusion fuel materials. The evidence is not yet conclusive beyond setting off an earthquake. It was touted as an achievement for the state’s nuclear program after Yongbyon was re-started in 2015. One trend is certain — the kilotonnage of North Korean nuclear bomb tests is growing larger. It is a trend of concern for all stakeholders in the region.

In August 2016, North Korea tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) off the coast of Sinpo and the missile flew towards the Sea of Japan and became the first to enter Japan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). Experts and policymakers were surprised at the progress made by the North Korean SLBM missile program. Currently only a handful of countries in the world have the advanced technologies for SLBM programs. On April 4, 2017, North Korea fired a solid fuel rocket from what was probably a mobile launcher. Missiles launched from mobile platforms and submarines are more difficult to track. Mobile platforms like trucks and railways are on the move and easy to conceal. Solid fuel makes the missile stable for mobility.

The next test for the North Koreans may be the miniaturization process for potential warheads. The major powers of that region including China, the US, Russia, Japan, and South Korea have shown incredible self-restraint and patience in managing their relations with North Korea. Both China and the US, along with the responsible global states of South Korea, Russia and Japan have the same goals — to prevent war and nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula, and to bring about peace and economic development.

Peace in the region comes with credible deterrence. Credible deterrence that is transparent and defensive in nature discourages rogue behavior and encourages self-restraint. The US is also involved in a tight time-tested alliance network in Northeast Asia with its South Korean and Japanese allies, and they participated in a missile tracking coordination exercise in Hawaii in mid-2016. Seoul is also hosting the state-of-the-art THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense system that was delivered by the US to defend the territory of South Korea.

The US administration had stated clearly the condition of first exhausting all diplomatic efforts before considering any security measures.

Both South Korea and Japan have deployed the PAC-3 Patriot missile defense system as well as the sea-based Aegis destroyers system. Patriot works well in taking out short-range missiles like the former Soviet Scuds and their imitators. Japan is further armed with indigenous Chu-SAMs. The USS Zumwalt, America’s most advanced stealth destroyer, is under proposal for deployment to South Korea. US F-35 Joint Strike Fighters also arrived in Japan in January 2017. This is their first overseas deployment. Grey Eagle drones armed with Hellfire missiles have also been deployed at the South Korean border with North Korea. There are reports of the possibility of cyber warfare to disarm offensive weapons as well. The three countries are united and have practiced drills trilaterally off the coastal areas of North Korea in March 2017, and they have also tested the Aegis missile defense system. Unity brings about effective deterrence and indicates determination.

China has been careful and has shown self-restraint. Beijing is also displaying diplomatic skills, just like the other major powers, in managing North Korean relations. On the Chinese side, Beijing is cautious and has conveyed signals of the limitations of its own influence on North Korea to the US, and has emphasized the need for cool-headedness and patience, especially through its top diplomats. It wants to convey its concerns about the need to calm down the temperatures. When US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with the US’ close allies South Korea and Japan, he did not rule out the end to strategic patience and the option of pre-emptive action on North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. It is important to note that the US administration had stated clearly the condition of first exhausting all diplomatic efforts before considering any security measures. It is a cool-headed and rational attitude.

President Trump reiterated reserving the option of unilateral action and urged the Chinese to do something about the North Korean situation. Both Washington and Beijing want peace first and foremost. Both are major powers with significant responsibility of bringing about peace in the region and the world, and thus, the summit will be closely watched by the world and the region for the potential of both powers to make the decision in consultation with their respective allies.

Meanwhile, China and North Korea have stakes in getting their bilateral economic exchanges going again. The Northeast Asia Special Region in between China and North Korea needs attention from both sides to complete their unfinished developmental projects. Trucks were supposed to ferry goods across both borders in the envisioned economic zone. Economic cooperation can lead to functionalist cooperation between the two countries. These are economic stakes that can bring about lasting peace to the region. Economic development can be given a chance if missile programs and nuclear testing are stopped and UN sanctions on North Korea are lifted.

Economic cooperation will also remove the necessity to develop WMDs. There are fears that Pyongyang is considering miniaturizing its warheads to fit on top of missile systems for delivery. This makes everyone in the region nervous. There is a now a chance for the major powers to cooperate and collectively persuade Pyongyang against this development. An ICBM (inter-continental ballistic missile) system tested and/or deployed by Pyongyang is unlikely to be beneficial to peace and stability and is not in the interest of anyone, including North Korea’s traditional friends.

All other possible cards are on the table, including reviving the six-party talks (Beijing’s proposal), and the possibility of direct talks between North Korea and the US. These possible proposals will need visionary leadership, immense diplomatic skills, and the resources of the major powers in the region to bring about first, the de-escalation of temperatures in the Korean Peninsula, dialogue and talks between the parties involved, institutionalization of these consultation platforms, and finally meetings at all levels to reach compromises in the interest of lasting peace.

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