China: U.S., North Korea ‘Should Meet Each Other Halfway’ on Denuclearization

Donald Trump. Kim Jong Un
AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

At a press conference on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang appeared to chide North Korea for threatening to pull out of the planned summit meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.

Lu was responding to a question about North Korea’s threat to “reconsider” the Trump-Kim summit, its cancellation of a meeting with South Korean officials on Wednesday, and its complaint about annual joint military exercises held by the United States and South Korea.

Lu’s reply was a general encouragement for all parties on the Korean Peninsula to maintain “the current momentum for dialogue and detente,” which would inevitably be taken as a message to Pyongyang since they are the ones threatening to terminate dialogue:

When the peaceful political settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue is facing important opportunities, all relevant parties, the U.S. and the DPRK in particular, should meet each other halfway, demonstrate goodwill and sincerity to each other, jointly create enabling conditions and atmosphere for their summit, and make positive efforts for the denuclearization and enduring stability of the Korean Peninsula.

It is difficult to discern exactly what “meeting each other halfway” on total denuclearization would look like—Washington, Seoul, and the rest of the free world are unlikely to take a deal in which Kim Jong-un gives up half of his nuclear weapons—but the general thrust of Lu’s response was to encourage everyone to make compromises and remain at the negotiating table.

He took the same tack with North Korea’s complaints about the military drills, suggesting that Pyongyang should extend a bit more “goodwill” to its dialogue partners, while they should refrain from taking “provocative actions that will trigger tension”:

We hope that both the ROK and the DPRK could follow the spirit of dialogue, reconciliation and cooperation embodied in the Panmunjom Declaration, fully understand and respect each other’s legitimate concerns, work in the same direction, accumulate mutual trust, and improve bilateral relations, and they will have our support in these efforts.

In order to sustain and consolidate the momentum of the improving situation on the Korean Peninsula, all relevant parties shall demonstrate goodwill to each other, avoid provocative actions that will trigger tension, and make concerted efforts to create enabling conditions and atmosphere for reaching a political settlement to the Korean Peninsula issue through dialogues.

(Note that “DPRK” refers to North Korea, while “ROK” is South Korea.) Later in the press conference, Lu returned to the topic of the U.S.-South Korean drills:

China’s position on the Korean Peninsula issue is consistent. We maintain that all relevant parties need to take concrete actions to build mutual trust, avoid provoking each other, and endeavor to bring the Korean Peninsula issue back to the track of political settlement through dialogues, all of which will be realized when all parties meet each other halfway. That is also why China has long been advocating the “suspension for suspension” proposal. We believe this proposal will help each other build mutual trust and put in place necessary conditions to resolve the issue through dialogues.

“Suspension for suspension,” more commonly rendered as “freeze for freeze,” is China’s long-standing proposal that North Korea suspend its nuclear weapons program while the United States and South Korea halt their joint military exercises.

This is an arrangement that would suit China’s interests, as they are uneasy about the American military operating so close to Chinese territory, using powerful sensors that can see deep inside it. China was somewhat displeased when Kim Jong-un dropped his perennial demand for removal of U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula as a condition for denuclearization, perceiving it as North Korea undermining China’s “freeze for freeze” doctrine.

North Korea’s chief negotiator Ri Son-gwon displayed another unfortunate lack of goodwill on Wednesday by calling the South Korean government “ignorant and incompetent.”

“Unless the serious situation which led to the suspension of the North-South high-level talks is settled, it will never be easy to sit face to face again with the present regime of South Korea,” Ri threatened.

He also complained about “human scum” speaking out against North Korea at the National Assembly in Seoul, by which he meant North Korean defector Thae Yong-ho, formerly Pyongyang’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom. Thae warned on Monday that North Korea cannot be trusted on denuclearization and will not pursue serious economic or political reforms.

Ri’s tirade was one of the first official indications that North Korea might pull out of the summit and discontinue talks with South Korea; most of the other comments to that effect have emanated from North Korea’s state-run media.