China and Russia pushed on Tuesday for talks to defuse the “confrontational spiral” between the U.S. and North Korea after Kim Jong-Un stepped back from a planned missile strike near Guam.
The North Korean leader said he would wait and see how the United States behaved before deciding whether to execute the planned launch of four missiles over Japan towards the tiny U.S. territory in the Pacific. Some analysts suggested Kim was opening a possible path to de-escalating tensions, which spiked dramatically with recent bellicose exchanges between U.S. President Donald Trump and Pyongyang.
The North’s official KCNA news agency said Kim was briefed on the “plan for an enveloping fire at Guam” during an inspection on Monday of the Strategic Force command in charge of the nuclear-armed state’s missile units. But it said Kim would “watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees” before executing any order. “In order to defuse the tensions and prevent the dangerous military conflict on the Korean peninsula, it is necessary for the U.S. to make a proper option first,” he added.
His remarks prompted joy in Guam, where officials described themselves as “almost ecstatic that Kim Jong-Un has backed off.”
China said on Tuesday that the North Korean nuclear crisis had reached a “turning point” and it was time to enter peace talks. Beijing, which is Pyongyang’s main diplomatic ally, has repeatedly called on the United States and North Korea to tone down their rhetoric in recent days.
“We now hope that all the concerned parties, in what they say and what they do, can contribute to extinguishing the fire, rather than adding fuel to the fire,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday in a telephone conversation focused on “ways to get out of the confrontational spiral on the Korean peninsula,” according to the Russian foreign ministry. A ministry statement said both countries had “stressed the lack of any alternative to a political and diplomatic resolution” and called for “all the sides involved—with the support of the global community—to move towards setting up dialogue.”
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Washington was “interested in finding ways to get to dialogue” but stressed the ball was in Kim’s court. The U.S. has long maintained that the North must show some tangible commitment to denuclearization before official talks can begin—a pre-condition rejected by Pyongyang.
Kim’s remarks about future U.S. conduct were seen as a clear reference to large-scale military exercises held every year by South Korea and the United States that are expected to kick off later this month. The North has always denounced the drills as provocative rehearsals for invasion and has in the past offered a moratorium on further nuclear and missile testing in exchange for their cancellation—a trade-off promoted by Beijing, but repeatedly rejected by Washington and Seoul.
Some analysts said Kim was seeking a similar quid-pro-quo this time around, using the Guam missile threat as leverage. “This is a direct invitation to talk reciprocal constraints on exercises and missile launches,” said Adam Mount, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
John Delury of Yonsei University in Seoul said Kim was “de-escalating, putting Guam plan on ice”—at least for now.
The United States and South Korea insist their annual joint exercises are purely defensive, and cannot be linked to the North’s missile program, which violates a host of U.N. resolutions.
Tensions have been mounting since the North tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles last month, which appeared to bring much of the U.S. within range. Responding to the tests, U.S. President Trump warned Pyongyang of “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” while the North responded with the Guam threat.
South Korean President Moon Jae-In weighed in on Tuesday, saying Seoul would avoid a second Korean War at all costs and stressing that “no one may decide to take military action without the consent of the Republic of Korea.”