Days after North Korea conducted its first-ever test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), world leaders began gathering in Germany for the G20 summit. Attendees include U.S. President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, all leaders who will be crucial to shaping an international response to North Korea’s latest violation of UN sanctions.
On Thursday, Xi and Moon held a meeting – their first since Moon assumed office on May 10 – in Berlin. Predictably, the North Korean ICBM test, and how to respond, loomed large over their discussions. Both leaders agreed that “they will not tolerate” the launch of “the North’s most advanced missile,” South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported, citing a Blue House spokesperson. Moon and Xi “agreed they will closely work together for a fundamental resolution of the North Korean nuclear and missile issues,” the spokesperson added.
Speaking separately on Thursday, Moon stressed the urgent need for dialogue and a peace treaty, bringing a final end to the Korean War. He also sent a reassuring signal to Pyongyang: “We do not wish for the collapse of North Korea and we will not pursue any form of unification by absorbing the other. We will not pursue unification by force.”
However, he also warned that North Korea was facing its last chance to engage in dialogue.
Moon’s remarks were a signal not only to Pyongyang but to Beijing as well. China’s suggested approach to the North Korean nuclear issue involves two parts: a “dual track” approach that would see simultaneous talks on a peace treaty and on denuclearization unfolding in parallel, and a “suspension-for-suspension” (or “dual freeze”) proposal for North Korea to freeze missile and nuclear development in exchange for the halting of U.S.-South Korea joint exercises. Moon’s remarks make it clear he is open to exploring the idea of a peace treaty with the North. In mid-June, a special adviser to Moon told a Washington, DC audience that Seoul was receptive to the idea of a dual freeze as well, although the Moon administration later distanced itself from those remarks.
Yet Moon, echoing Trump, has also called on China to “do more” to help pressure North Korea to change its behavior. “China is North Korea’s only ally and China is the country that provides the most economic assistance to North Korea,” Moon said in an interview with Reuters in late June. “Without the assistance of China, sanctions won’t be effective at all.”
Moon’s meeting with Xi comes as Trump signaled his patience with China has worn thin. “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter,” he tweeted on July 5. “So much for China working with us – but we had to give it a try!”
China has given no signal that the ICBM test will change its calculus on North Korea. Foreign Ministry spokespeople, while denouncing the ICBM test as a violation of UN sanctions, continue to urge “all relevant parties” to “stay calm and exercise restraint” — Beijing’s standard playbook for responding to a provocation from Pyongyang.
As for sanctions enforcement, in a routine press conference on July 6, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang insisted that “China has been implementing DPRK-related resolutions in a comprehensive, strict, accurate and faithful manner.” He added, however, that “as a neighbor of the DPRK, China maintains normal economic exchanges and trade with the DPRK.”
Aside from the North Korea issue, the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system to South Korean soil continues to complicate China-South Korea relations. Beijing sees the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system as a national security threat and retaliated by stemming the flow of Chinese tourists to South Korea and targeting South Korean companies for investigation and punishment in China. In an ironic twist, tensions stemming from THAAD reportedly scuttled an upcoming trilateral summit between China, South Korea, and Japan; in the past, it’s largely been China-Japan spats that have kept what was once envisioned as an annual event from going forward.
Moon, meanwhile, has his own issues with THAAD, which was approved by the previous Park Geun-hye administration. The new president was never fully convinced of the wisdom of THAAD deployment, which he feels was rushed through to avoid being impacted by South Korea’s early presidential election. Moon was further “shocked” to discover that his own Ministry of National Defense hadn’t notified him of the arrival of four additional launchers. Moon has since delayed THAAD deployment pending an environmental assessment, even while signaling to the United States that eventually the agreement will be honored.
Despite recent signs of a thaw in China-South Korea relations, THAAD remains a stumbling block. Previously, Moon had told Reuters that he would address the pressure placed on South Korean businesses in China with Xi during their meeting. “This is the agenda that we cannot evade,” he said. Sure enough, during their meeting, Moon asked Xi to end “various constraints” on economic and people-to-people relations, an oblique reference to China’s unofficial economic retaliation over THAAD.
For his part, Xi showed little sign of budging, placing the onus on South Korea to mend relations. Without mentioning THAAD explicitly, Xi told Moon that “China-South Korea relations have been facing difficulties, and we do not want to see that.” His solution to the issue, however, was for South Korea to “take seriously China’s reasonable concerns and appropriately handle the relevant issue.”
THAAD will continue to complicate the potential for a joint China-South Korea response to North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. China and Russia alike reemphasized their opposition to the missile defense system in a joint statement issued after Xi’s trip to Moscow on July 4:
[T]he deployment of THAAD anti-missile systems to Northeast Asia gravely damages strategic safety interests of regional powers, including Russia and China … Russia and China oppose the deployment of the said systems and call on the countries involved to immediately halt and cancel the process of their deployment.
That rhetoric has not gone down well in South Korea. Chosun Ilbo, in a July 5 editorial, slammed China and Russia for emphasizing THAAD while refusing to take a strong stand against North Korea. “If China and Russia continue to carp over something as harmless to their own ambitions as the THAAD battery, they should not be surprised if South Korea decides one day to develop its own nuclear weapons,” the editorial warned.
On a more positive note, Moon and Xi exchanged invitations to each other’s countries at their summit on Thursday. Moon reportedly accept an invitation to visit Beijing in the near future, and invited Xi to attend the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.