By Zhao Minghao
The resumption of talks between North and South Korea just before the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang has brought slight but precious hope for peace on the Korean Peninsula.
In October 2014, Hwang Pyong-so, then vice chairman of the National Defense Commission of North Korea, attended the closing ceremony of the 17th Asian Games in the city of Incheon. However, bilateral relations did not improve as expected.
The recently resumed talks may well be the last chance to prevent the two countries from going to war again. Hence, the international community, including the US, should support the efforts of both sides to improve relations.
The Trump administration did not show the right attitude on the issue by convening a foreign ministers' meeting in Vancouver, Canada, on January 15-16 to discuss measures to exert maximum diplomatic as well as economic pressure on North Korea to force it to end its nuclear and missile programs. Countries that attended the meeting are members of the United Nations Command which participated in the Korean War, and most of them joined the US in fighting North Korea in the 1950s.
North Korea, already trapped by international sanctions, is seeking to come out of the quagmire. With a ballooning demand for fuel this spring, North Korea needs the easing of international sanctions. But the Vancouver meeting signals US efforts to disrupt the peace process so as to prevent sanctions against North Korea being eased.
The North Korean nuclear issue seems to have gone beyond the control of the Trump administration. The intended effect of sanctions is fading. With the resumption of talks, it is difficult for the US to strengthen sanctions through a new UN Security Council resolution. Therefore, Washington is instead reaching out to the UN Command.
As for concrete sanction measures, the US wants to use a naval blockade and international financial sanctions. The former is aimed at reducing smuggling of oil and goods, and the latter intends to freeze all overseas assets of the Kim Jong-un regime and to impose financial sanctions on all foreign enterprises involved in illegal trade with North Korea. All such moves are viewed by Pyongyang as attempts to trigger a quasi-war.
The US does not seem yet determined to launch military strikes against North Korea, though the Trump administration has made plans for a "bloody nose" attack.
The US Nuclear Posture Review, which is to be officially released in February, may reveal that the US is going to develop low-yield nuclear weapons as a response to conflicts in regions like the Korean Peninsula, and to loosen restrictions on the use of such armaments to defend itself against threats, including cyber attacks by North Korea.
But a consensus has not yet been reached among policymakers in the Trump administration on launching military strikes on North Korea. Some are worried that military action may damage prospects of boosting the US economy. Besides, Washington is not sure to win a military confrontation against Pyongyang.
The US estimated that North Korea may have stockpiled up to 60 nuclear weapons, but is not clear about their exact location. A mindless war can cause thousands of deaths in both countries, and the safety of 200,000 Americans in South Korea may also be threatened.
The Trump administration should give a measured and prudent response to the resumption of talks, instead of convening a meeting like the one in Vancouver.
Steady China-US relations are vital to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In order to maintain effective coordination between Beijing and Washington over the North Korean issue, the Trump administration should cautiously deal with disputes over economy and trade, Taiwan, as well as the South China Sea.
The international community is expecting further talks between all parties. North Korea needs to recognize that the international community is determined to realize the goal of denuclearization, and the US should stop taking moves to inflame regional tensions. All parties should come together to promote the peace process on the Korean Peninsula.
The author is a senior research fellow with The Charhar Institute and an adjunct fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.