Chinese President Xi Jinping had a phone conversation with his US counterpart Donald Trump on the growing tensions in the Korean Peninsula Monday morning, Beijing time, amid speculation that North Korea could soon carry out a sixth nuclear test. The country will mark the 85th anniversary of the foundation of its Korean People's Army on Tuesday. Dates around that day are considered a sensitive time when North Korea is likely to conduct a new nuclear test.
This is the second time in less than two weeks that the Chinese and US leaders have communicated by phone. It not only shows the smooth communication between the two leaderships, but also underscores the tense situation in the peninsula.
The game of chicken between Washington and Pyongyang has come to a breaking point. If North Korea carries out a sixth nuclear test as expected, it is more likely than ever that the situation will cross the point of no return. All stakeholders will bear the consequences, with Pyongyang sure to suffer the greatest losses.
Under the best-case scenario, unprecedentedly severe sanctions imposed by the UN will deal a heavy blow to the entire industrial activities of North Korea and it will barely be able to sustain development of its society. Once the US launched surgical strikes against North Korea's nuclear and missile facilities, the Pyongyang regime will be forced to make a life-or-death decision.
By then, if North Korea does not resort to strategic retaliation, its deterrence will lose ground and Washington will play it like a fiddle. If Pyongyang does choose to retaliate against Seoul, the US and South Korea will target its regime without a second thought.
A high stakes situation like this could quickly get out of control. No stakeholders want such a situation. But once the gamble begins, no side will be able to stop it.
As a close neighbor to the Korean Peninsula, the last thing China wants is to see North Korea fall into such a predicament or an outbreak of war in the region. However, China has very limited influence on the entire situation. Washington hopes that Beijing can contain Pyongyang from conducting its nuclear activities, as if such an effort is as easy as saying abracadabra. North Korea, on the other hand, hopes China will pile more pressure on the US and South Korea to stop their threats of war. Beijing cannot possibly satisfy both sides.
China is now acting to prevent the relevant sides from rolling the dice in this crazy gamble, and is doing this by persuading Pyongyang to quit its sixth nuclear test. If Pyongyang stops now, it will avoid the devastating result that it cannot bear. North Korea can drive a bargain with the US with its current nuclear achievements and strive for its rights over national security.
Pyongyang has pursued an independent course since the end of the Korean War. The integrity of the nation's sovereignty is much higher than that of South Korea. This has impressed quite a few people. Yet given North Korea's current national strength as well as its peculiar geopolitical circumstances, it must learn how to be flexible as well as resolute. Taking a small step back will make a conflict easier to solve. This does not mean being a coward, but being courageous to face the challenge in a different way.
The North Korea nuclear issue is like a puzzle filled with bombs. Pyongyang must not strike a match and detonate it. What it needs is big wisdom to realize a soft landing.