U.S. assertions about the Koreas drew silence Friday in Beijing, which refused to confirm it was turning up pressure on North Korea, and consternation in Seoul, which dismissed President Donald Trump’s claim that he would get South Korea to renegotiate a trade deal and make it pay for a missile defense system.
South Korea contradicted statements Trump made in an interview Thursday with Reuters news agency in which he also said there is “a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea,” as the North continues to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Regarding the South, Trump said he would fix or end what he called a “horrible” bilateral trade deal, and would make the Asian ally pay $1 billion for the THAAD missile defense system now being deployed in its territory.
Woo Taehee, South Korea’s vice trade minister, said the country had not been notified of any trade renegotiation, and that there have been no working-level talks with the U.S. regarding the 5-year-old trade deal.
Woo said the trade ministry was trying to confirm the details of the media reports on Trump’s remarks. He said there have been “no pre-talks” with the U.S. regarding the issue.
The U.S.-South Korea free trade deal is not the only free trade pact that the Trump administration is reconsidering. Earlier this week the White House leaked the possibility of the U.S. abandoning the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump called that off hours later, saying he would seek to renegotiate the trade deal with Canada and Mexico and pull out of NAFTA only if he couldn’t secure a favorable deal.
In a separate statement, South Korea’s defense ministry said there is no change in its plan under which the U.S. covers the cost for operating THAAD, now being deployed in the country’s southeast. Under an agreement reached during the administration of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, South Korea offers the land and facilities for THAAD but not the cost of operations, the Defense Ministry said.
The U.S. missile defense system, meant to deter North Korean aggression, has become a thorny issue between South Korea and China, which opposes it because its powerful radars can peer through not only North Korean but Chinese defenses. At the same time, Trump has lauded Chinese President Xi Jinping since their meeting in Florida early this month, expressing confidence that China will try to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went a step further Thursday, saying that China has threatened to impose unilateral sanctions on North Korea if it conducts further nuclear tests. Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang would not confirm that Friday.
Geng reiterated China’s support for U.N. sanctions on the North but repeatedly avoided giving a direct answer when asked at a daily news briefing about what other plans China might be considering.
“As for what kind of actions China will take if North Korea conducts another nuclear test, it is a hypothetical question and there is much speculation about that, so I have no comment on it,” Geng said.
“China firmly opposes any actions that violate the United Nations Security Council resolutions. This position is quite clear,” he said.
Geng also emphasized that China had played an active role in seeking a resolution to the crisis.
“For a long time China has played an important and constructive role on the North Korean issue and made many contributions,” he said. “I can say in terms of solving the North Korean crisis, China’s efforts can’t be overstated.”
China wants North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program, but has opposed unilateral sanctions imposed without a U.N. mandate.
Beijing has come under growing U.S. pressure to use its leverage as North Korea’s largest trading partner and main source of food and fuel aid to compel it to heed U.N. resolutions.
Tillerson said Thursday that Washington was aware that China was in communication with the government in Pyongyang.
“They confirmed to us that they had requested the regime conduct no further nuclear test,” he said on Fox News Channel.
Tillerson said China also told the U.S. that it had informed North Korea “that if they did conduct further nuclear tests, China would be taking sanctions actions on their own.”
While Beijing says it backs the U.S. in finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis, it remains unclear what actions it has taken or plans to take beyond those mandated by the U.N.
China in January suspended coal imports from North Korea for the rest of the year, but it did so following the passage of a Security Council resolution capping the North’s coal exports. Other economic activity with North Korea remains robust.
At least one Chinese analyst says Beijing has been increasing pressure on North Korea, and would be willing to impose punitive measures unilaterally in the event of another nuclear test.
“So Tillerson’s comments are correct — but be careful, China does so for China’s national interest, not as a result of U.S. pressure,” said Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor at Renmin University’s School of International Studies in Beijing.
Other experts are more skeptical.
Notwithstanding Tillerson’s comments, there’s scant evidence that China’s government has changed policies, said Daniel Sneider, a Korea expert from Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.
While China might take actions intended to send a message to North Korea — a recent shortage of gasoline in Pyongyang sparked speculation that China was working behind the scenes — Beijing is firmly opposed to measures that might seriously destabilize the regime, possibly sending refugees across the border into China and placing U.S. and South Korean troops in the North.
“North Korea exists as a client state of China for the sake of China, not us, and because the Chinese don’t want to have the Korean Peninsula dominated by the U.S.,” Sneider said.
“Their main goal is to keep the Americans from doing something crazy and see if they can drag the North Koreans back to the negotiating process where they can reduce the level of tensions.”
Lee reported from Seoul, South Korea. AP writers Matthew Brown in Beijing and Richard Lardner and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.