China, U.S. near agreement on North Korea, but THAAD discord remains

Bloomberg, AP, AFP-JIJI

U.S. and Chinese officials have cited “significant” progress on a new United Nations resolution targeting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, while laying out continued differences over the contested South China Sea.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Secretary of State John Kerry gave no details of any draft proposal to punish North Korea for its recent nuclear test and long-range rocket launch, both of which violated U.N. Security Council resolutions. The launch prompted South Korea’s government to say it would be willing to discuss installing a U.S. missile defense system on its territory, a move long opposed by China.

“The resolution is being evaluated by our teams in both Beijing and Washington but the fact that it is being evaluated is significant,” Kerry said at a briefing with Wang Tuesday in Washington. “There is no question that if the resolution is approved, it will go beyond anything previously passed.”

Kerry added there would be no need to deploy the missile defense system, known as THAAD, if North Korea agrees to abandon its nuclear weapons program. The U.S. maintains about 28,500 troops in South Korea and China sees any additional troops or weapons systems as a threat to its security interests in Asia.

South Korea on Wednesday dismissed China’s warning that the planned THAAD deployment could damage ties, stressing that it was to counter “growing threats” from the North.

“The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system (THAAD) is a measure of self-defense against growing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea,” presidential spokesman Jeong Yeon-guk said.

Jeong said the issue would be “decided in accordance with security and national interests,” adding that “China will have to recognize the point.”

The remarks came after Chinese Ambassador Qiu Guohong on Tuesday warned that installation of the missile system on the Korean Peninsula could “destroy” relations between Beijing and Seoul.

China’s participation in any new sanctions is essential as it is by far North Korea’s leading trade partner, providing most of the isolated country’s energy and food. That relationship has been strained as Kim Jong Un ramps up his nuclear weapons program.

So far, China has been cautious about tougher penalties focused on oil shipments to the regime in Pyongyang, concerned about sparking instability in a country with whom it shares a long border. The U.S. and China have tentatively reached an agreement on North Korea that includes a ban on exporting jet fuel that the air force uses, South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper reported, citing people it did not identify.

It has been seven weeks since the North’s Jan. 6 nuclear test, which was followed by a Feb. 7 rocket launch. While China has joined in the international criticism, it has balked at imposing sanctions that could threaten the stability of North Korea.

Wang said a resolution alone cannot resolve the North Korean nuclear issue and that dialogue was needed.

He said China is urging a “parallel track” in which there were both talks on denuclearization — the top priority of the United States — and replacing the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War with a formal peace treaty — a key demand of Pyongyang.

The long-standing U.S. position has been that North Korea needs to disarm first, but the Obama administration has recently indicated some flexibility on this point, although it says Pyongyang remains reluctant to resume talks on its nuclear arsenal.

Kerry said Tuesday that North Korea can ultimately have a peace agreement with the U.S. if it will come to the table and negotiate denuclearization.

“We want a negotiated outcome,” he said.

On Sunday, the State Department confirmed that Pyongyang had reached out to the United States in a tentative bid to discuss a peace treaty, but added that the January test had derailed the initiative.

“We carefully considered their proposal, and made clear that denuclearization had to be part of any such discussion. The North rejected our response,” spokesman John Kirby told reporters.