Describing the U.S. and North Korea as trains set for a “head-on collision,” China proposed Wednesday that, in order to defuse escalating tensions in the region, Pyongyang abandon future missile tests in return for Washington scrapping joint military exercises with Seoul.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi made the suggestion at a news conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, days after North Korea fired four missiles it said were practice runs for strikes on American military bases in Japan. In response to the tests, the U.S. began the rollout of a controversial missile defense system on South Korean soil, drawing a warning from China, which sees the system as a threat.
Continuing with the train crash analogy, Wang said Wednesday: “The question is: Are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision? Our priority now is to flash the red light and apply the brakes on both trains.”
“As a first step,” Wang said, this could be achieved by North Korea suspending its banned nuclear and missile program, which has accelerated in recent years as Kim Jong Un seeks to develop a nuclear-armed ballistic missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland. In response, he suggested, the U.S. and South Korea could abandon Foal Eagle – their annual joint training exercise that infuriates North Korea, which views the drills as preparation for an invasion of its territory.
North Korea has itself previously proposed such a deal, but the U.S. has not taken them up on the offer. This is the first time that such a suggestion has been made since President Donald Trump took office. His administration faces tough decisions as it figures out how it will counter North Korea’s illicit weapons development program, while avoiding provoking an arms race or otherwise inflaming tensions in the volatile region.
In other recent developments:
- Japanese lawmakers have begun pushing more aggressively for the country’s military to develop the ability to carry out pre-emptive strikes on North Korean weapons sites, Reuters reported Wednesday, in a challenge to the country’s pacifist post-war tradition.
- China warned the U.S. and South Korea Tuesday of “consequences” over a sophisticated new missile defense system that the American military began deploying on the peninsula Monday. “We will resolutely take necessary measures to defend our security interests,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters. The comments represented a notable harshening of Beijing’s tone against the Trump administration; previously much of its ire about the defense system was directed at Seoul.
- The U.S. sought to reassure China that the advanced missile system – known as THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense – was a necessary defensive measure against Pyongyang, and posed no threat to Beijing. “We have been very clear in our conversations with China that this is not meant to be a threat, and is not a threat, to them or any other power in the region,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said at a briefing Tuesday.
- Chinese officials have closed at least 23 stores operated by South Korean conglomerate Lotte after the company agreed to hand over a golf course to the South Korean government to house the defense system. Chinese authorities said the stores were closed over fire safety issues, but the move comes just days after the Xinhua state news agency warned of consequences for Lotte over its involvement in the deal.
- The U.N. Security Council is set to hold an emergency meeting on the North Korean missile launches Wednesday, at the request of the U.S. and Japan.
The tensions come as North Korea is embroiled in a separate spat with Malaysia, stemming from the killing of Kim’s half brother in Kuala Lumpur last month.
Pyongyang, angered by Malaysia’s investigation into the assassination, escalated the feud Tuesday when it announced it was banning all Malaysians on its soil from leaving the country, effectively taking 11 people hostage – three embassy workers, two U.N. staff, and their family members. Malaysia responded in kind, stranding an estimated 1,000 North Koreans in the country.