South Korean F-15s participate with the US Air Force in joint exercises. Photo: Kamaile Casillas / Pacific Air Forces / DVIDS / Handout via Reuters
South Korean F-15s participate with the US Air Force in joint exercises. Photo: Kamaile Casillas / Pacific Air Forces / DVIDS / Handout via Reuters

As war drums beat loudly in Northeast Asia, and major powers appear to have run out of options to resolve the North Korea nuclear crisis, the “dual-freeze” proposal is gaining traction among experts in the United States and South Korea, at least as a temporary solution to try to ease current tensions between Washington and Pyongyang.

Under this scheme, which was first proposed by China, the US and South Korea should halt their joint military drills on and off the Korean Peninsula and North Korea should halt testing of ballistic missiles and nukes. But the Chinese plan has a chance to work only if it is expanded and turned into a multilateral framework.

Strategic parity in East Asia at risk

North Koreans feel under siege. They think the two large-scale military drills that the US and South Korea conduct annually, the Foal Eagle-Key Resolve exercise in the spring and the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercise in late summer, are preludes to invasion.

The administration of US President Donald Trump basically rejects the dual freeze because it believes it would be taken as de facto recognition of the brutal regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It could also set a dangerous new precedent in international relations. Indeed, if Washington lets Pyongyang hold rockets and nuclear bombs, even temporarily, other “rogue” nations could be encouraged to push forward with rearmament.

More important, there are military and strategic motivations behind the Trump administration’s opposition to the dual moratorium. If Washington suspends military drills with South Korea, its standing in the region will be weakened, because China and Russia will go on to test their armed forces and combat hardware without restrictions.

On Monday, Beijing and Moscow ended the second stage of their Joint Sea-2017 naval exercises. Chinese and Russian vessels participated in coastal and maritime drills in the Sea of Japan and the southern section of the Sea of Okhotsk – the first stage of Joint Sea-2017 had been held in the Baltic Sea two months ago.

As well, in the past months, China has carried out naval and missile exercises in the Bohai Gulf and elsewhere in the Yellow Sea, which many have viewed as a warning to both North Korea and the US, while the Russian Pacific Fleet has routinely tested its capabilities in Northeast Asia.

China and Russia must do their part

So the dual-suspension arrangement, as it has been suggested by China (with the backing of Russia), would elicit strategic disequilibrium in the region. However, it could be more palatable to the US if it included limitations to Beijing and Moscow too. In this scenario, North Korea’s moratorium on nuclear and missile tests should be matched by the freeze of major military exercises in Northeast Asia not only by the US and South Korea, but by China, Russia and Japan as well.

The area of “de-escalation” could be geographically limited to the Korean Peninsula, the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea, the Bohai Gulf and the northern part of the East China Sea.

This expanded dual freeze could be the basis for the creation of a permanent multilateral security mechanism in the region bringing together the United States, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and North Korea. It would not be a new version of the Six-Party Talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear activities, but a new platform set up under the auspices of the United Nations and entrusted with verifying all parties’ commitments.

It is doubtful that China would agree to this solution. The Yellow Sea and Bohai Gulf are part of the Beijing-Dalian-Qingdao triangle, the core of Chinese political power. China would likely refuse to freeze its military exercises in this strategic area by saying the North Korean nuclear and missile crisis is actually a problem between Washington and Pyongyang.

Moscow would take the same line, even though its deputy ambassador to the UN, Vladimir Safronkov, said on Tuesday that the rising confrontation between North Korea and the US was due to the lack of a security mechanism in Northeast Asia.

Furthermore, there are high chances that Kim does not want to block North Korea’s military development, now that the completion of a robust nuclear and missile deterrent is within reach.

But if China, Russia and North Korea dismiss a deal with the US and its allies on an expanded moratorium on military activities in Northeast Asia, they will be blamed for the persistent deadlock. This would be a crushing blow to Beijing, which is working to replace Washington as the leading power in East Asia.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.