Over the past week in East Asia, North Korea’s nuclear and missile menace was one of the focal points of a flurry of top-level discussions involving leaders who have stakes in the issue.
There were many meetings, statements and agreements made by the leaders who held a series of bilateral and multilateral talks at annual regional summits including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
Despite the hectic diplomatic activities, the leaders failed to find a breakthrough in the crisis caused by North Korea’s nuclear and missile belligerence. In other words, the world will have to live with the status quo and uncertainties for the time being.
US President Donald Trump, who made his maiden trip to the region, was at the center of the diplomatic interactions focused on North Korea. Because Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un exchanged vicious, hostile threats against each other -- even stoking fears of war -- in the past months, many in the region was anxious to see how the North Korean crisis would evolve. Put simply, Trump’s visit to Japan, South Korea and China -- all major players in the crisis -- has changed little.
In his first stop in Japan, Trump -- as expected -- made a full agreement with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to put maximum pressure and sanctions on the Pyongyang government.
Abe backed up the agreement by announcing that Japan will freeze assets of 35 North Korean individuals and groups as part of its latest separate sanctions on the North.
In South Korea, Trump and President Moon Jae-in reached the same agreement, stressing the need to put diplomatic and economic pressure on the North to force it to come to the negotiating table.
What was reassuring was that Trump and Moon -- brushing aside concerns about differences in their approach toward the North Korea crisis -- reaffirmed their commitment to a solid military alliance against the North.
The two sides agreed that South Korea would acquire more sophisticated weapons and strategic assets from the US. The ongoing joint military drills involving South Korean naval forces and the three fleets of US aircraft carriers testifies to the commitment to deterring the South from any provocation from the North.
It was apparent that Trump took care not to “unnecessarily” provoke Kim. In his address to the National Assembly in Seoul, Trump called the North a “hell no person deserves,” but he did not repeat any of his past comments like “totally destroy” or “little rocket man.”
Throughout his trip to the region, Trump reiterated his call for China to do its due role to resolve the crisis. In Seoul, he called on China and Russia to fully implement UN sanctions, downgrade diplomatic relations with the North, and “sever all ties of trade and technology.”
That was a clear message that China should meet the demands of the international community to stop supplying oil to the North. But in China, Trump toned down his rhetoric and his agreement with President Xi Jinping did not include any new action to be made by Beijing.
Xi insisted that the North Korean problem should be solved through negotiations. He maintained the same stance in talks with Moon in Danang, Vietnam, where they attended the APEC forum.
That the Chinese leadership dug in its heels does not mean that the international community should give up its efforts to press the sole remaining ally and the biggest benefactor of North Korea into pressuring or persuading Kim to give up nuclear weapons and missiles and come to the negotiating table.
US Secretary of State James Tillerson, who is accompanying Trump on his Asian tour, said that there were “clear signs” that the international sanctions are creating some “stress” in North Korea. Excluding an abrupt change of position from the North -- to a better or worse situation -- putting up pressure that could amplify the stress is likely the most effective means for now. How to alter the attitude of Chinese leaders will be one of the most challenging and decisive factors in the success of this endeavor.