In a meeting of top-level diplomats on Tuesday, Tokyo urged Beijing to impose more decisive sanctions on North Korea, seeking to end China’s apparent inaction amid a recent litany of provocations by Pyongyang.
“We made it clear that what is important for now is to beef up pressure on North Korea and that China has extremely important roles to play. We strongly urged China to play even more active roles in this regard,” Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters after the meeting ended.
The foreign minister, however, did not clarify whether Japan was able to elicit Beijing’s approval of the request, nor did he reveal what specific measures he had asked China to implement.
Kishida’s closed-door talks with visiting Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi came on the heels of a string of missile launches by Pyongyang in recent months, which test-fired yet another ballistic missile Monday morning in what was seen as the latest act of defiance against ever-growing international pressure.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe likewise told new South Korean president Moon Jae-in in a teleconference later in the day that pressure is the way to go for now. After the talks, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that the two leaders agreed that now is not the time for dialogue with Pyongyang.
Monday’s missile is believed to have fallen into Japan’s exclusive economic zone, prompting Tokyo to both lodge a protest with North Korea in the “strongest wording” possible and pledge to respond with “concrete actions.”
But Tokyo’s renewed vows to ratchet up pressure on the North remain sharply at odds with a stance long upheld by Beijing, which pushed for dialogue with Pyongyang in an emergency meeting of the United Nations security council last week.
This emphasis on dialogue appeared evident in Yang’s opening statement.
“China’s position on the Korean Peninsula is clear and consistent,” Yang told Kishida at the onset of the talks. “We aim for denuclearization of the peninsula and continued peace and prosperity in the region, and want to achieve this goal through peaceful negotiations.”
China has long been unwilling to play hardball with North Korea, which it views as a “buffer” against the threat of U.S. military forces in South Korea. The collapse of the regime in the North would also leave China exposed to a potentially massive refugee influx.
But the fear of being flanked by the American military was recently hammered home when Seoul accepted the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, whose radar China argues could monitor its own activities.
In this sense, “North Korea’s value as a buffer is becoming bigger and bigger for China,” said Shunji Hiraiwa, a professor of Korean studies at Nanzan University.
Well aware of this and the possibility that Pyongyang may resort to military retaliation if pressured too hard, Tokyo, Hiraiwa said, wouldn’t prove overly serious about a potential demand that Beijing cut off its oil supply to Pyongyang — an ultimate step that experts say would be fatal to the regime.
Instead, Tokyo’s real hope is that Beijing will tighten the noose on Chinese banks and companies that have engaged in shady trading practices with the North, he said.
Prior to his talks with Kishida, Yang, whose post puts him on par with a deputy prime minister, met with Shotaro Yachi, head of the secretariat of Japan’s National Security Council, on Monday night for what turned out to be a five-hour discussion of Sino-Japanese relations and North Korea.
Yachi, a top security adviser to Abe, reaffirmed the government position that recent nuclear threats by the North had entered a “new phase” and that Japan and China must cooperate closely in urging Pyongyang to abide by U.N. resolutions
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