China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has urged North Korea and the United States to hold talks as soon as possible, calling on all parties to take steps to move the situation forward and, as he put it, fight for peace.
During talks earlier this week, South Korean officials said North Korea had offered to hold talks with the United States about normalizing ties and denuclearization.
Many are still undecided about what to make of the development, which some analysts note could be a diplomatic breakthrough, an attempt to weaken sanctions or both.
In the past, North Korea has broken agreements to end its nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees and economic assistance.
Rough road ahead
Addressing reporters on the sidelines of China’s annual top-level political meetings in Beijing, Wang Yi said while the issue has taken an important step in the right direction and there is a light at the end of the tunnel, the road ahead would not be smooth.
“Whenever tensions have subsided on the peninsula the situation will be hounded by various interferences. Now is a crucial moment for testing the sincerity of the parties,” Wang said. “Peace must be fought for and opportunities need to be seized.”
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in echoed similar concerns on Thursday when he said that many “critical moments” still lie ahead to end the nuclear crisis.
South Korean envoys head to US
Moon made his comments as two senior officials from Seoul departed for Washington to brief officials there on the outcome of their recent visit to North Korea.
Late next month, President Moon and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un are scheduled to meet at a border village for talks. It would be the third such meeting between the two sides since their 1945 division.
Seoul has said that North Korea is willing to suspend nuclear and missile tests during such talks, but how South Korea and the United States respond is less clear.
The toughest regime of sanctions on North Korea to date, which has had an effect on both Pyongyang and its closet allies, China and Russia, are expected to continue, as are military exercises conducted by Seoul and Washington.
North Korea views such exercises as a threat and wants them to stop. And it wants the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops in South Korea.
When Wang Yi was asked whether he agreed that the complete withdrawal of troops was the only way to ensure peace on the peninsula, he did not directly answer the question.
He did argue that China’s advocacy of a freeze for freeze (nuclear and missile tests in the North and military exercises in the South) had contributed to the current thaw.
During the winter games, North Korea did not conduct any nuclear tests and the United States suspended its exercises, he said.
“This proves that China’s proposal that suspension for suspension was the right prescription for the problem and created basic conditions for the improvement of inter-Korean relations,” Wang said.
Wang did not mention the impact sanctions were having.
For now, however, it seems that military exercises between South Korea and the United States could continue. A spokeswoman for South Korea’s Defense Ministry has said an announcement for the schedule of joint drills will come after the Pyeonchang Paralympics finish on March 18.
Zhao Tong, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, said that it was perhaps neither sanctions or a freeze that had pushed North Korea to reach out to Seoul or express its willingness to talk with Washington, but its completion of three intercontinental ballistic missile tests last year.
“North Korea has already completed the first step of its nuclear strategy, which is to first establish its basic nuclear deterrent capability,” Zhao said.
After that, he adds, North Korea quickly began reaching out and moved to counter the negative impact of its tests.
“This is really an opportunity that is hard to come by,” Zhao said.“If this opportunity isn’t seized or if the North loses its patience after a period of waiting for the U.S. to come to the negotiation table, it may resume its nuclear tests and prove to the world that its nuclear capabilities are reliable and solid.”
At that point, he adds, “the opportunity will be missed for good.”
Joyce Huang contributed to this report.