Conflict

As Trump tweets for China to 'put a heavy move on North Korea,' China calls for de-escalation

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South Korean Army soldiers rappel down during a U.S.-South Korea joint live-fire military exercise, at a training field, near the demilitarized zone, separating the two Koreas in Pocheon, South Korea April 21, 2017.

South Korean soldiers rappel down during a US-South Korea joint live-fire military exercise at a training field, near the demilitarized zone, in Pocheon, South Korea, April 21, 2017. 

Credit:

Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

President Donald Trump took to Twitter Monday to challenge China to “put a heavy move on North Korea." But Chinese officials had their own plans, calling for de-escalation to ease tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program.

China and Russia on Tuesday called for a simultaneous freeze on North Korean nuclear and missile tests and joint military exercises by the US and South Korea as tensions escalated on the peninsula.

"The two sides propose that the DPRK [North Korea] as a voluntary political decision declares a moratorium on testing nuclear explosive devices and ballistic rocket launches, and the US and South Korea refrain from carrying out large-scale joint exercises," their foreign ministries said in a joint statement, also calling on Washington to halt deployment of its THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea.

"Parallel to this, the opposing sides should start negotiations and affirm general principles of their relations including the non-use of force, rejection of aggression and peaceful coexistence," the statement read.

The joint statement, issued after a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow, followed an announcement by North Korea that it had successfully test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time.​ Although some in Moscow and Washington have cast doubt on claims that the test involved a long-range missile, North Korea has openly boasted about being close to perfecting a weapon with that capability.

Trump, in a post on Twitter, urged North Korea's closest ally, China, to act to "end this nonsense once and for all."

China has been ambivalent about taking action against North Korea, and there's no indication that this latest missile test and Trump's calls to action will nudge Chinese officials to take a harder stance.

“China has it's own agenda [and] its own priorities when it comes to dealing with North Korea," said Mary Kay Magistad, who spent decades reporting from Northeast Asia and now hosts PRI’s Whose Century Is It? podcast. "What China wants first and foremost is stability in the region."

While the US views North Korea's nuclear program as a threat, China sees it "as something to be managed, not an acute crisis to be stopped on its tracks at this particular moment,” Magistad said.

The announcement also came as a blow to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has been trying to cautiously engage North Korea's regime since taking office in May. 

“They want to put [the new president] through his paces. They want to make it hard for him,” said Jean Lee, a Seoul-based expert with the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Despite escalating diplomatic tensions, Lee said the mood in South Korea is surprisingly calm.

“South Koreans are used to this,” she said.

But some diplomats and experts, including China's ambassador to the United Nations, are warning of "disastrous" consequences if world powers fail to find a way to de-escalate the situation. 

"Every one of these tests just gets them closer to what is truly terrifying, and that is when they get a nuclear weapon small enough to put on one of these missiles that is designed to strike the mainland US,” Lee said.

Agence France-Presse reporting was used in this story.

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