The U.S. and China pledged to work together toward convincing North Korea to abandon its nuclear pursuits in a move that highlighted China’s growing frustration with a long-standing yet volatile Communist ally.
Appearing in the evocative setting of Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guest House, site of President Richard Nixon’s visit during his 1972 trip to China, Secretary of State John Kerry and China’s foreign policy chief, Yang Jiechi, took turns expressing concern about North Korea’s belligerence and their shared goal to tame the aspiring nuclear country.
“China is firmly committed to upholding peace and stability and advancing the denuclearization process on the Korean peninsula,” Yang said late yesterday in comments translated by an interpreter. “The issue should be handled and resolved peacefully through dialogue.”
Both nations would have “further discussion to bear down very quickly with great specificity on how exactly we will accomplish this goal,” Kerry said with Yang at his side.
While Kerry declined to say what the U.S. might do in return for China’s collaboration, he floated the possibility the U.S. could reduce its missile defenses in the region.
If the nuclear threat posed by North Korea recedes, “the same imperative does not exist at that point in time for us to have that kind of robust, forward-leaning posture of defense,” Kerry told reporters in a news conference.
The top U.S. diplomat is visiting a region that’s been on edge since February, when North Korea tested a nuclear device in defiance of the United Nations Security Council and has threatened to carry out more.
With signs pointing to North Korea potentially preparing a fourth nuclear test, Kerry headed into back-to-back meetings in Beijing, including a session with President Xi Jinping, with the goal of persuading China to “put some teeth” into their efforts to restrain North Korea.
Kerry said he left those conversations with the impression that China is “very serious” about trying to bring North Korea in line.
“I do believe that I have a better sense of what China’s intentions are here and how they can proceed, but it’s inappropriate for me to speak for China,” he told reporters after his joint appearance with Yang. “I am not going to the specifics, but I can assure you that we left no option off the table and we had a full discussion about what the possibilities might be.”
Display of Unity
While scant on details, the joint commitment by the U.S. and China was a rare display of unity in a symbolically significant setting between the two economic rivals that have also been at odds on more than reining in North Korea.
Still, other areas of disagreement, from accusations of China’s role in cyber attacks on U.S. businesses to its maritime claims in the South China Sea, were barely touched upon in this visit given the attention on events in the Korean peninsula.
Instead, Kerry asked Xi to make a greater effort to enforce UN sanctions and urged China, which provides impoverished North Korea with fuel and consumer goods, to toughen its message to leaders in the capital, Pyongyang.
China is best-positioned to mitigate the North Korea situation, and should take strong action, such as cutting off fuel and luxury goods flowing into North Korea, said a Republican member of Congress, who asked not to be named because he has access to classified information.
The North Korea crisis shaped up to be a test for U.S.- China ties, as Kerry asks China to distance itself from a relationship with Pyongyang that the late Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong decades ago called “as close as lips and teeth.”
It wasn’t clear whether Kerry was alluding to Mao’s comment when he told the American Chamber of Commerce in Seoul that he will tell Chinese officials “you’ve got to put some teeth” in their North Korea policy.
In what is a complex relationship, China regards North Korea as a trading partner and strategic buffer with U.S.-backed South Korea. For instance, China would face a massive flow of refugees in the event of war or regime collapse.
Still, there are signs that China is developing “nuisance fatigue” toward North Korea, said Bruce Bennett, a defense analyst specializing in the Koreas at the Rand Corp., a research group based in Santa Monica, California.
For starters, economic ties are waning.
Chinese exports to North Korea fell 13.8 percent to $720 million in the first three months of 2013, the China customs bureau reported. From December through February, exports of crude oil to North Korea rose 3 percent to 102,002 tons, or $107.7 million, according to Chinese data.
Kerry’s visit to the region may coincide with a new act of aggression by the young Kim Jong Un, who gained power just over a year ago, and hasn’t demonstrated the same deft touch of his late father, Kim Jong Il, in managing relations with China.
North Korea may conduct a weapons test on April 15 to coincide with the 101st anniversary of state founder Kim Il Sung’s birth, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said April 11 in Seoul. A year ago, North Korea fired a long-range missile that disintegrated shortly after liftoff, then successfully launched one in December.
In Seoul, Kerry reaffirmed the U.S. will defend South Korea from its neighbor’s “unacceptable provocations” and “dangerous” nuclear and missile programs, according to a joint statement on April 12.
Speaking with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se, Kerry said it would be a “huge mistake” for North Korea to test a missile and that the international community will not accept North Korea as a nuclear power.
“We have lowered our rhetoric significantly, and we are attempting to find a way for reasonableness to prevail here,” Kerry told reporters after meeting with President Park Geun Hye and Yun. “We are seeking a partner to deal with in a rational and reasonable way.”
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