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G-7 unity on North Korea puts China in spotlight

by Sophie Jackman

Kyodo

The Group of Seven leaders hardened their stance on North Korea at their annual gathering last weekend, but analysts say this is just a start in efforts to persuade China to use its influence to tackle the threat from the hermit nation’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose country lies within the range of missiles North Korea has already developed, set out to convince his G-7 peers at the summit in Taormina, Sicily, that the threat is a global issue requiring a resolute response.

Analysts said the communique released at the end of the two-day meeting indicates Abe was mostly successful in that goal.

The leaders called for the complete abandonment of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs — a stronger position than last year’s G-7 statement, which simply urged the North to refrain from “further tests.”

But the statement lacked any explicit pressure on China, North Korea’s primary economic and diplomatic benefactor, to do more to impose tougher measures than just an indirect nod, in the form of a request to the “international community” to “redouble its efforts.”

Kazuhiro Araki, professor at Takushoku University’s Institute of World Studies, said pressure from G-7 nations alone will not lead to a resolution without action from China.

The wording will serve as a precedent for the Group of 20 summit in Germany in July, which will bring together G-7 leaders and those of China and Russia, among others.

The ideal outcome is for the G-20 to at least match the G-7’s statement, but that is not guaranteed, said Tsuneo Watanabe, senior research fellow at the Tokyo-based Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

“It would be good if both the G-7 and G-20 could essentially say North Korea should expect significant sanctions if it carries out the sixth nuclear test it is said to be planning,” Watanabe said.

Fresh sanctions, through the United Nations and unilaterally from countries like Japan and the United States, are likely to further target Chinese firms deemed to be assisting the North Korean nuclear program by doing business with Pyongyang, he said.

John Nilsson-Wright, senior research fellow at Chatham House and senior lecturer in Japanese politics and international relations at Cambridge University, said the G-7 statement had “something for everyone.”

The leaders did not explicitly reject the possibility of direct dialogue with the North, allowing the United States to act flexibly in future, Nilsson-Wright said.

China has long maintained that resuming direct talks with Pyongyang is the way to go in addressing the nuclear issue. But the Abe administration is opposed to that move in the current environment, not least because it could constitute recognition of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.

In a pre-summit meeting, Abe was able to secure, for the time being, U.S. President Donald Trump’s effective endorsement of Tokyo’s stance that now is the time for pressure, not dialogue.

This was despite Trump’s comments earlier this month that he would be “honored” to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “under the right circumstances.”

But with newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in also advocating a thaw in relations with the North, including the resumption of dialogue, Japan may have to tweak its stance to coordinate with shifts in U.S. and South Korean policy.

Abe and Trump are both expected to hold talks with Moon on the sidelines of the G-20, and getting on the same page with him will be crucial to ensuring a coordinated response.

“Ultimately there will need to be talks, but for now these will probably need to be explored indirectly … or possibly in closer cooperation with the South Koreans,” Nilsson-Wright said.

In the interim, encouraging North Korea to refrain from further provocation will require a combination of sanctions and a clear maintenance of military deterrence, he said.

In a sign of the focus Washington is placing on that deterrence, the United States is reportedly sending the U.S. aircraft carrier Nimitz and associated vessels toward the Korean Peninsula to join two carrier groups already nearby.

It was not clear if the Nimitz would replace the USS Carl Vinson, which arrived in the area late last month. The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan left Yokosuka naval base on May 16 and might be sent there as well.

The Trump administration has said that “all options are on the table” in getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, making clear in recent months that this includes military action.

But South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported Thursday that Trump has approved a four-point policy plan on North Korea that does not include the option of military action, citing a South Korean lawmaker who met with Joseph Yun, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy.

While the exact nature of future sanctions and the outlook for resuming talks with Pyongyang remain unclear, the united front forged by Abe, Trump and the other G-7 leaders in Taormina has at least intensified the spotlight on Pyongyang, the analysts agreed.

Although the European leaders are geographically a world away from North Korea, they can exert pressure by signaling their concerns with China, which would not want to put its economic links with European countries and businesses at risk, Watanabe said.

“If China feels it is truly on its own (in its dealings with North Korea), it will make a move,” he said.