The United States said on Saturday that China had agreed to help rid North Korea of its nuclear capability by peaceful means, but Beijing made no specific commitment in public to pressure its long-time ally to change its ways.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met China’s top leaders in a bid to persuade them to push reclusive North Korea, whose main diplomatic supporter is Beijing, to scale back its belligerence and, eventually, return to nuclear talks.
SLIDE SHOW: Madman of North Korea: Kim Jong Un
Visiting Beijing for the first time as secretary of state, Kerry has made no secret of his desire to see China take a more active stance towards North Korea, which in recent weeks has threatened nuclear war against the United States and South Korea. Kerry and China’s top diplomat, State Councillor Yang Jiechi, said both countries supported the goal of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.
"We are able, the United States and China, to underscore our joint commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner," Kerry told reporters, sitting next to Yang at a state guesthouse in western Beijing.
But North Korea has repeatedly said it will not abandon nuclear weapons which it described on Friday as its "treasured" guarantor of security. Yang said China’s stance on maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula was clear and consistent, repeating phrasing used by the Foreign Ministry since the crisis began.
"We maintain that the issue should be handled and resolved peacefully through dialogue and consultation. To properly address the Korea nuclear issue serves the common interests of all parties. It is also the shared responsibility of all parties," he said, speaking through an interpreter. China will work with other relevant parties, including the United States, to play a constructive role in promoting the six-party talks and balanced implementation of the goals set out in the September 19 joint statement of 2005."
The United States and its allies believe the North violated the 2005 aid-for-denuclearization deal by conducting a nuclear test in 2006 and pursuing a uranium enrichment program that would give it a second path to a nuclear weapon in addition to its plutonium-based program. Six-party aid-for-disarmament talks, involving the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and host China, collapsed in 2008 when the North walked away from the deal.
Kerry declined to comment on what specifically China may do to push for a peaceful solution on North Korea, saying only that they had discussed all possibilities. At a news conference in Seoul on Friday and in a U.S.-South Korean joint statement issued on Saturday, Kerry signaled the U.S. preference for diplomacy, but stressed North Korea must take "meaningful" steps on denuclearization.
"We don’t want to get into a threat for threat or … some kind of confrontational language here. There’s been enough of that," Kerry said in Beijing. If North Korea got rid of its nuclear capabilities, then the United States would have no reason to maintain recently deployed defensive capabilities – such as a missile defense system sent to Guam – he said.
"Now, obviously, if the threat disappears, i.e. North Korea denuclearizes, the same imperative does not exist at that point in time for us to have to have that kind of robust, forward leaning posture of defense."
The Pentagon has in recent weeks responded to the North Korean threats by announcing plans to position two Aegis guided-missile destroyers in the western Pacific and a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system to Guam.
As the North’s main trading partner, financial backer and the closest thing it has to a diplomatic ally, China had a unique ability to use its leverage against the impoverished, isolated state, Kerry said in Seoul before leaving for Beijing.
China, which sided with North Korea in the 1950-53 civil war against the U.S.-backed South, has always been reluctant to apply pressure on Pyongyang, fearing instability if the North were to implode and send floods of refugees into China. It has also looked askance at U.S. military drills in South Korea.
China’s Xinhua news agency said in a commentary that Washington had itself been "fanning the flames" on the Korean peninsula with its shows of force. "It keeps sending more fighters, bombers and missile-defense ships to the waters of East Asia and carrying out massive military drills with Asian allies in a dramatic display of preemptive power," it said.
Chinese state television quoted Premier Li Keqiang as telling Kerry that rising tensions on the Korean peninsula were in nobody’s interests, in apparent reference to both Washington and Pyongyang to dial down the war of words.
"All sides must bear responsibility for maintaining regional peace and stability and be responsible for the consequences," the television report paraphrased Li as saying. "Disturbances and provocation on the peninsula and regionally will harm the interests of all sides, which is like lifting a rock only to drop it on one’s feet."
Still, U.S. officials believe China’s rhetoric on North Korea has begun to shift, pointing to a recent speech by China’s Xi in which – without referring explicitly to Pyongyang – he said no country "should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain."
Kerry’s Asia trip, which includes a stop in Tokyo on Sunday before flying home on Monday, takes place after weeks of shrill North Korean threats of war since the imposition of new U.N. sanctions in response to its third nuclear test in February.
North Korean television made no mention of Kerry’s visit and devoted most of its reports to preparations for celebrations on Monday marking the birth date of state founder Kim Il-Sung.
But Rodong Sinmun, the ruling Workers’ Party’s newspaper, issued a fresh denunciation of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, saying: "If the enemies dare provoke (North Korea) while going reckless, it will immediately blow them up with an annihilating strike with the use of powerful nuclear means."
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, quoting a government source, said North Korea had not moved any of its mobile missile launchers for the past two days after media reports that as many as five missiles had been moved into place on the country’s east coast. It said this suggested no launches were imminent.
Additional reporting by Terril Yue Jones in BEIJING and Ronald Popeski in SEOUL