U.S.' Talks with South Korea and Japan Pushes China to Put More Pressure on North Korea

by DANI FIFE April 18, 2017

Tension in the Korean Peninsula continues to grow as North Korea tested yet another ballistic missile in a show of force. The missile reportedly blew up on the launch pad, resulting in another failed test for their nuclear weapons program.

Vice-President Mike Pence, while visiting the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, reminded the U.S. allies in the region that "All options are on the table as we continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of South Korea."

Over the weekend, North Korea displayed more of their arsenal than they have in the past in a large military parade in Pyongyang on Saturday. Among these were several new types of ballistic missiles which, South Korean officials believe, could reach intercontinental ranges.  It's unclear whether the missiles are fully functional, or, more likely, are mock-ups of current or future ICBM designs.

In anticipation of a missile test, the US Navy had dispatched the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson strike group to the region last week. These ships possess the capability to shoot down North Korean missiles and were probably intended to bolster President Trump's position that if China won't rein in North Korea, the U.S. with its allies will.

While many believed that North Korea might attempt to test a nuclear weapon around the time of Vice President Pence's arrival and the celebration of the 150th birthday of Kim Il Sung, the nation's founder there was no nuclear test last weekend. While it is clear that the failed launch was not accompanied by a nuclear test, as there was no seismic activity, very limited data was gathered on what type of missile was launched due to the limited amount of time before it exploded.

In response to this increasingly aggressive posture, Pence put North Korea on notice on Monday citing the recent U.S. strikes in Syria and Afghanistan as evidence of the administration's resolve that he says should not be tested. This failed missile test over the weekend, according to General Mattis, was an attempt to provoke a response. In response, Mattis also promised to work with China to stabilize the region.

Susan Thornton, the acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia, reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi agreed in a phone call Sunday on the need for a stricter enforcement of U.N. resolutions. China has become frustrated with North Korea leaving Beijing increasingly willing to enforce UN Security Council sanctions as North Korea becomes more and more unpredictable.

How effective will Chinese pressure be? Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to President Trump's request to increase the pressure on North Korea to denuclearize. However, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi repeated China's consistent position that this crisis can only be resolved through diplomacy.

China has made a concerted effort to put pressure on North Korea, more open than ever to taking a hardline approach to North Korea and has even threatened to impose an oil embargo if North Korea continues to defy UN Security Council resolutions. In February, China even suspended all coal imports from North Korea until the end of the year. With coal making up 34-40 percent of all North Korean exports in the last five years, and most of it being shipped to China, this was not insignificant.

However, despite the suspension of coal imports from North Korea, China reported just last week that its trade with North Korea had actually expanded. Despite the Chinese expressing an increased desire to see North Korea comply with UN Security Council resolutions, the two nations continue to maintain normal business relations, with North Korea conducting 90 percent of its business with China. One glaring example comes from the missiles paraded on Sunday that were carried on imported Chinese trucks.

However, the political relationship between China and North Korea is still strained. Chinese President Xi has yet to meet with Kim Jong Un since the North Korean leader took power in 2012. In the last five years, ties between the two countries have reportedly become distant. Even China's veteran point man on North Korea and career diplomat, Wu Dawei, has not been to Pyongyang since February of last year. Wu led Beijing's efforts to denuclearize North Korea for nearly a decade until the Six Party Talks between China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, the United States, Japan, and Russia were suspended in 2008. While he visited South Korea just last week, perhaps in an effort to ease tensions before Pence's arrival, he had not been able to confirm plans to visit North Korea.

Under the Trump administration, military action remains an option for handling North Korea. However, due to the potential for massive retaliation against South Korea and Japan, Trump likely plans to focus on intensifying economic sanctions first. Tougher sanctions would include an oil embargo, global ban on North Korea's airline, and punishing Chinese banks that do business with North Korea.

While promoting an "America first" platform, Trump has expressed a willingness to link trade to the issue of nuclear proliferation. Trump is open to possibly cut China a better trade deal if it exerts its influence over North Korea and pushes for denuclearization, a movement that seems to recognize that greater Chinese cooperation is essential.

It is unclear what role Japan will play in denuclearizing North Korea, but Pence arrived in Japan April 18th, where he told a press conference "the era of strategic patience is over," prior to a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Abe. Pence promised to work closely with South Korea, Japan, and other allies in the region, together with China, to achieve a denuclearization of North Korea.

This cooperation between the U.S. and Japan is already evident as Japan sent warships to join the USS Carl Vinson strike group for naval drills in the East China Sea.

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