The Chinese government has long resented accusations that, as US President Donald Trump put it in a tweet in early January, it “won’t help with North Korea”.
On Wednesday China’s foreign minister used a colourful metaphor to describe his government’s position on the crisis-prone Korean peninsula, likening Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington to “runaway trains” that Beijing was doing its best to stop.
The press conference by Wang Yi also marked the first time that a senior Chinese government official has commented substantively on the Korean crisis since last month’s assassination in Kuala Lumpur of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un, and a series of missile tests by the reclusive nation.
Speaking at a briefing at the annual session of China’s parliament, Mr Wang criticised North Korea for pursuing its nuclear programme “in violation of UN Security Council resolutions”, but also censured Seoul and Washington for “conducting military exercises of enormous scale and ramping up military pressure on [North Korea]”.
“The two sides are like two accelerating trains coming towards each other with neither side willing to give way,” Mr Wang said. “The question is are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision? Our priority is to flash the red light and apply brakes on both trains.”
While Mr Trump believes that China lacks the will to rein in North Korea, Chinese officials argue that they do not have the power to do so because the problem is not theirs to solve.
“North Korea is a rusty lock but China does not have the key,” says one Chinese official. “North Korea wants security but the threat doesn’t come from China.”
Mr Wang acknowledged that as “a next-door neighbour with a lips-and-teeth relationship with the Korean peninsula, of course China is indispensable to the resolution of the nuclear issue”.
But he also insisted that “the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula is mainly between [North Korea] and other states”, namely South Korea and the US. Instead of refusing to negotiate with Pyongyang until Kim Jong Un abandons his nuclear programme, Beijing advocates a “dual-track” approach.
“To defuse the looming crisis on the peninsula, China proposes as a first step [that North Korea] suspends its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for a halt of the large-scale US-[South Korean military] exercises,” Mr Wang said. “This suspension-for-suspension can help us break out of the security dilemma and bring the parties back to the negotiating table. Then we can follow the dual-track approach of denuclearising the peninsula on the one hand and establishing a peace mechanism on the other.
“Nuclear weapons will not bring security and the use of force is no solution,” he added. “Talks deserve another chance. Peace is still within our grasp.”
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