China on Wednesday called on North Korea to suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the US and South Korea halting annual military exercises, to prevent what it called a “head-on collision.”
Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s proposal came after a cascade of events that has sent regional tensions soaring, including a volley of North Korean missile tests that flew provocatively close to Japan.
China is particularly concerned over the deployment this week of an American missile-defence system being rolled out in South Korea as a shield against the growing North Korean threat.
Wang warned of a “looming crisis” unless the antagonists cooled down.
“The two sides are like two accelerating trains coming toward each other with neither side willing to give way,” Wang said at a press conference on the sidelines of China’s annual parliament session.
“The question is: are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision? Our priority now is to flash the red light and apply the brakes on both trains.”
He proposed that North Korea “suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the halt of the large-scale US-ROK exercises,” using the acronym for South Korea.
Pyongyang blasted at least four missiles toward Japan on Monday, three of which splashed down in waters within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
Seoul and Washington have begun annual joint exercises that always infuriate Pyongyang, and the US has begun deploying its THAAD anti-missile system which, though directed at North Korea, is seen by Beijing as a threat to its own defence interests.
Wang said China’s proposal could help bring the US and North Korea back to negotiations on ending Pyongyang’s weapons programmes.
– ‘Destabilising behaviour’ –
But it mirrors past North Korean offers that were rejected by the US, which said Pyongyang had no right to demand concessions in return for abiding by UN resolutions.
Six sets of UN sanctions since Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in 2006 have failed to halt its drive for what it insists are defensive weapons. It held its most recent nuclear test last September.
Wang continued China’s hammering of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, which he said “undermines China’s strategic security.”
North Korea has said its missile launches were tests for a possible strike on US bases in Japan.
The UN Security Council on Tuesday strongly condemned the launches as a “grave violation” of its resolutions barring North Korea from developing missile technology.
The Security Council, of which both the US and China are permanent members, denounced Pyongyang’s “increasingly destabilising behaviour” and vowed further measures.
An emergency council meeting has been called for Wednesday.
US President Donald Trump reiterated Washington’s “iron-clad commitment” to Japanese and South Korean security and threatened “very dire consequences” over the launches.
The US State Department said Wednesday that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit Japan, South Korea and China from March 15-19, his first trip to the region.
His talks would focus on “strategic coordination to address the advancing nuclear and missile threat from North Korea”.
THAAD is designed to intercept and destroy short and medium-range ballistic missiles.
The South Korean conglomerate Lotte Group has come under growing pressure in China for providing a site for the system, triggering concerns of a broader backlash in China against Seoul.
Chinese authorities have shut down 39 of the 99 Lotte Mart retail outlets over supposed fire-safety concerns, a Lotte spokesman said, and Chinese travel agencies have told AFP they were ordered to stop arranging Chinese tourist trips to South Korea.
North Korea is also squaring off against Malaysia over the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam, brother of Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong-Un.
South Korea says the killing in Kuala Lumpur’s airport using a banned chemical weapon was orchestrated by the North.
Pyongyang has accused Malaysia of smearing its reputation with the murder investigation.
On Tuesday it barred Malaysians from leaving its borders, prompting a tit-for-tat measure by Kuala Lumpur.
Daniel Pinkston, an analyst at Troy University in Seoul, said the North’s recent escalation of confrontations follows a well-worn playbook.
“There is a famous quote in their literature: if someone brings a pistol, bring a cannon. That’s how they operate,” he said.