A sophisticated missile defense system being delivered to South Korea may give President Trump a bargaining chip that no other U.S. president has had to pressure China to rein in North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs.
Beijing has long expressed anger over the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) shield, and on Wednesday, just two days after the Trump administration announced the start of the system’s deployment, Chinese officials suddenly signaled that they may be ready to increase pressure on Pyongyang.
In an unusual and public proposal that analysts say exposed Beijing’s growing alarm over the situation on the Korean Peninsula, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters that Pyongyang could suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for a halt in joint U.S.-South Korean military drills that the North has long condemned as a rehearsal for an invasion.
The Trump administration and South Korea quickly threw cold water on the proposal as the U.N. Security Council convened a closed-door session on Pyongyang’s ballistic missile tests — including a simultaneous launch Monday in which a missile crashed into waters just 190 miles off the coast of Japan.
The State Department said China’s suggested trade-off was not a “viable deal,” and U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would first have to take “some sort of positive action.”
“We have not seen any goodwill at all coming from North Korea,” Ms. Haley said. “I appreciate all my counterparts wanting to talk about talks and negotiations, [but] we are not dealing with a rational person.”
Added Japanese Ambassador Koro Bessho: “At the starting point, we need some assurances [that the North Koreans] are serious about the denuclearization.”
But China’s overture suggested a sea change within the high-stakes North Korea diplomacy. For years, Washington has made fruitless demands on Beijing to put more pressure on Mr. Kim.
Diplomats said the proposal was an unusual burst of proactive diplomacy from China, which has resisted taking the lead in trying to solve the crisis.
It’s not clear how much the Trump administration’s move on the THAAD may have motivated the Chinese, but Beijing has made no secret of its displeasure with the system, which it claims can be used to undercut its nuclear arsenal.
Analysts say Mr. Wang’s statements laid bare Beijing’s mounting frustration with Kim Jong-un and spiking concern over a potential confrontation on the Korean Peninsula.
The Chinese foreign minister said friction between Pyongyang on one hand and Washington and Seoul on the other was like “two accelerating trains” headed toward each other, with neither side willing to give way.
“The question is: Are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision?” he told reporters in Beijing. “Our priority now is to flash the red light and apply the brakes on both trains.”
Although he stopped short of announcing a commitment from Pyongyang to embrace Beijing’s proposal, Mr. Wang said it could be a first step to defuse a looming crisis.
“This suspension-for-suspension can help us break out of the security dilemma and bring the parties back to the negotiating table,” he said.
Speculation swirled over the extent to which the Trump administration plans to exert pressure on China.
The administration is struggling to complete a North Korea policy review with high numbers of key security and diplomatic posts still to be filled.
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson will hold high-level meetings with South Korean, Japanese and Chinese officials during visits next week to Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing in what will be his first trip to the region as America’s top diplomat.
The U.S. has about 30,000 troops in South Korea and roughly 50,000 in Japan. Diplomatic sources say Mr. Tillerson’s trip will center on strategic talks toward more regional coordination against North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile threats.
The Pentagon’s announcement on THAAD will loom over the talks. The U.S. and South Korean militaries revealed Monday that components needed to set up the system had begun arriving in South Korea.
It was the Obama administration that first secured an agreement from Seoul to accept THAAD. The system’s deployment had been stalled for months amid outrage from China and Russia. China has launched a campaign to punish Seoul economically for accepting the shield, including restrictions on South Korean firms operating in China.
Washington insists that THAAD is defensive only. But Beijing argues that it contains “X-band” radar capable of reaching well beyond the Korean Peninsula and into China to target and spy on Chinese military assets.
During negotiations toward the system’s deployment in February, Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, rejected the notion that THAAD was being used as leverage in U.S.-Chinese talks on North Korea.
“THAAD is not a diplomatic bargaining chip,” Mr. Russel said at the time.
The Trump administration has given little indication on whether it will use THAAD’s deployment as leverage against China, although Mr. Trump has repeatedly touted his skills as a businessman who knows how to cut a deal.
“The deployment of the THAAD system is critical to [South Korea‘s] protection,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Wednesday. He added that Beijing and Washington “both understand the threat that North Korea poses to the region, and I think that there’s areas of concern that we can work together.”
Private analysts said a withdrawal of THAAD in exchange for an end to the North’s nuclear programs might be an attractive trade-off — but only if Pyongyang and Beijing hold up their end of the bargain.
Anthony J. Ruggiero, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said he would not rule out the notion that Mr. Trump sees the situation differently from the Obama administration.
But Mr. Ruggiero said he would strongly advise against using THAAD as a bargaining chip because he believes China is far from willing to offer anything of equivalent value in exchange for any potential halt to the system’s deployment.
“It’s not clear to me that China would be ready to do what is necessary,” he said.
If he were advising Mr. Tillerson, he said, he would advise the secretary of state to tell the Chinese next week that “THAAD is off the table.”