China on Wednesday called on North Korea to suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the US and South Korea halting military wargames, to prevent what it called a “head-on collision.”
Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s proposal came after a cascade of events that has led to a dramatic spike in tensions in the region, including a volley of North Korean missile tests that flew provocatively close to Japan.
China is particularly concerned over the deployment this week of America’s THAAD defence system which is being rolled out in South Korea as a shield against the growing missile threat.
Wang warned of a “looming crisis” stoked by North Korean nuclear and missile tests and annual US-South Korean military exercises.
“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 across the sea toward Japan on Monday, and three of the rockets splashed down into waters within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
Seoul and Washington have begun annual joint exercises that always infuriate Pyongyang, and the US has started deploying an anti-missile system directed at North Korea but which Beijing has taken as a threat to its own defence interests.
Wang said China’s proposal could help bring the US and North Korea back to the “negotiating table” for talks on ending Pyongyang’s weapons programmes.
But it mirrors past offers made by North Korea that were rejected by the administration of US President Barack Obama, which said North Korea 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 Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system being deployed in South Korea.
He said the “very controversial THAAD system is the biggest issue” facing China-South Korean relations, adding that it “undermines China’s strategic security.”
Nuclear-armed North Korea has said its missile launches were a training drill for a strike on US bases in Japan. They have drawn global condemnation.
The UN Security Council on Tuesday strongly condemned the launches as a “grave violation” of UN resolutions barring North Korea from developing missile technology and denounced Pyongyang’s “increasingly destabilising behaviour.”
The Security Council, of which both the US and China are permanent members, vowed to “take further significant measures.”
An emergency council meeting has been called for Wednesday by the United States and Japan.
Following the launches, US President Donald Trump reiterated Washington’s “iron-clad commitment” to the security of Japan and South Korea and threatened “very dire consequences” for its actions.
With the tensions rising, the US State Department said Wednesday that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would visit Japan, South Korea and China from March 15-19, his first visit to the region.
His talks would include “strategic coordination to address the advancing nuclear and missile threat from North Korea, the State Department said.
THAAD is designed to intercept and destroy short and medium-range ballistic missiles during their final phase of flight.
The South Korean conglomerate Lotte Group has come under pressure in China for providing a site for the system, amid concerns of a broader backlash in China against Seoul.
Chinese officials have shut down 39 of the 99 Lotte Mart retail outlets over fire-safety concerns, a Lotte spokesman said, and Chinese travel agencies have told AFP they were ordered to stop arranging trips to South Korea by Chinese tourists.
North Korea also is facing off against Malaysia.
Both have imposed tit-for-tat bans on each other’s citizens from leaving their countries in a row over the assassination in Malaysia of Kim Jong-Nam, brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
South Korea says the killing was orchestrated by Pyongyang.