The summit between President Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Danang, Vietnam, on Saturday is significant in that it has formalized the restoration of relations between South Korea and China.
One of its biggest outcomes is that Moon agreed to visit China next month for another summit with Xi. The meeting next month is expected to initiate summit exchanges to improve bilateral ties. Moon also invited Xi to visit South Korea next year for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. In response, the Chinese leader promised to try to visit South Korea. He said if circumstances prevented him from doing so, he would send a high-level delegation. These summit exchanges can be seen as an expression of their will to renew the bilateral relationship that has been strained over the deployment of a US anti-missile system.
Another significant achievement of the summit is that Moon and Xi have agreed to strengthen communication and cooperation to solve the problem of North Korea’s nuclear threat, the top common issue of both countries.
The two leaders shared the view that ultimately the nuclear issue should be resolved through dialogue. This means they will make joint efforts to bring North Korea to negotiations over its denuclearization.
Though a specific direction has not been determined yet, they are expected to pursue a diplomatic process to engage the North while making efforts to pressure the country.
What is worrisome is that both leaders may lean so much toward peace and dialogue that they may shake the US alliance, which is leading the international community’s sanctions and pressure on the North. Maximum pressure on the North might come to nothing if it cracks just a little.
North Korea is expected to produce nuclear warheads by the first half of next year at the latest. It is a matter of time before the communist state manufactures and fields intercontinental ballistic missiles that can strike the continental US. Its nuclear weapons would then emerge as an actual threat to the international community, not only to Northeast Asia. This would burden the North’s ally China as well.
Therefore, the North must be deterred militarily. The Moon administration should not forget that the foundation of deterrence is the US alliance.
In the present situation, it seems unlikely that Pyongyang will come to the table for dialogue. Strong sanctions and pressure are the only practical ways to make it agree to talks.
Dialogue would be futile and would simply give the North time, unless it is based on the premise that the North’s nukes program would not be frozen but scrapped completely, verifiably and irreversibly.
At the summit next month, Moon should stop seeking only dialogue. He should try to get across the need to ratchet up pressure on the North and call for China to play a greater role in that direction.
He also should demand that Beijing handle North Korean defectors in China with a humanitarian viewpoint and help them come to the South or a third country if they wish to do so.
Beijing has opposed strong sanctions that the North would hardly be able to bear, while arguing for a solution only through dialogue and negotiations. It has tried to keep North Korea’s strategic value as its buffer against American influence. In the meantime, the North has come to the brink of developing nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Now is the time for change. The North must not be allowed to complete its nuclear and missile programs. Beijing ought to do more to stop it from doing so, as China is the only country which can put unbearable pressure on the North.
North Korea discarding its nukes and returning to the international community through dialogue and openness are for the sake of the North as well as China and South Korea. The starting line for new relations between South Korea and China should be drawn along the way.