U.S., China agree to cooperate on Korean crisis

April 13, 2013

Secretary of State John F. Kerry lobbied China on Saturday to lean harder on its Marxist ally North Korea, suggesting that Washington might reverse certain military moves in the region if the North gives up its nuclear weapons ambitions.

Kerry argued that the North’s escalating belligerence threatens the entire Pacific region, including China’s interests. He won a modest restatement of the shared goal of a ­non-nuclear Korean Peninsula and a public call from China’s foreign policy chief, Yang Jiechi, for a way out of the tension “peacefully, through dialogue.”

That was a clear warning to North Korea that its main economic and political protector does not want a new Asian war.

“People in the region understand what the balance of the power is in the situation,” Kerry said during a news conference closing his day of meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other officials. “Everybody is hoping that reasonableness will prevail.”

Kerry said he would not discuss specific promises or plans by China in dealing with its ally, saying China may or may not choose to reveal its program publicly. But he claimed a clear commitment between the United States and China to “bear down” together to reduce the risk of war or nuclear proliferation from North Korea.

He dangled the possibility that if North Korea gave up its nuclear weapons capability the United States might reverse military actions that have unnerved China, including additional missile defenses in Guam and Japan that Kerry said have been in “direct response to the fact that American interest and American territory” were threatened by North Korea.

“It would be our hope in the long run that — or, better yet, in the short run — that we can address that,” Kerry said.

China shares the U.S. view that a new missile launch from North Korea now would be “unwanted and unwarranted,” Kerry said, and he appealed openly to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to “join in seeking a negotiated solution.”

That was a reference to possible new talks with North Korea nearly four years after international negotiations that included China and the United States collapsed. The United States and South Korea welcomed the prospect of talks under the right conditions, part of an effort this past week to reduce tensions. China agreed to work with the United States on starting a new round of talks.

North Korea’s recent threatening moves could be a bid to raise the stakes for such talks, and Kerry was clearly leery of appearing too eager.

The United States and China agreed to follow up quickly on Saturday’s joint agreement, he said. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will visit China within weeks. Kerry’s deputy, William J. Burns, and intelligence agency officials will also come to Beijing soon to collaborate on North Korea, Kerry said.

“From this moment forward, we are committed to taking actions in order to make good on that goal,” Kerry said before a dinner with Yang. “We are determined to make that goal a reality. China and the United States must together take steps in order to achieve the goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.”

U.S. and Asian officials say China alone has the economic and political leverage with North Korea to make the case to Kim that he must step back from a confrontation that has been building for months. “China is firmly committed to upholding peace and stability and advancing the denuclearization process on the Korean Peninsula,” Yang said.

The United States is trying to appeal to China’s self-interest, arguing that North Korea has become a liability instead of an asset, undermining the central Chinese goal of stability and making China look ineffectual. North Korea has defied Chinese warnings, including not to conduct a third nuclear test, and recent Chinese statements about the North reflect growing frustration and alarm.

“I think it’s clear to everybody in the world that no country in the world has as close a relationship or as significant an impact on the DPRK than China,” Kerry said Friday in Seoul, using the initials of North Korea’s formal name. “China has an enormous ability to help make a difference here.”

China has prevented the collapse of impoverished North Korea with huge fuel subsidies, favorable trade arrangements and food aid for a nation unable to feed itself. Its leverage over Pyongyang comes from that assistance and from the two nations’ long-standing political alliance.

China backed North Korea during the Korean War and has long seen its de facto client state as a valuable buffer against U.S.-backed South Korea and the tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed there.

Chinese leaders whom Kerry met with earlier Saturday made oblique references to the tense North Korean standoff in brief public remarks.

“I must say there are immense common interests between China and the United States,” Premier Li Keqiang told Kerry through an interpreter. “Our common interests far outweigh our differences.”

Li said both are big countries and added, “We shoulder the responsibility for peace and stability in our region and the world.”

Kerry told Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that he hoped to launch a broader cooperation “to define for both of us what the model relationship should be and how two great powers, China and the United States, can work effectively to solve problems.”

In addition to a third nuclear test this year and a successful long-range missile test in December, North Korea has made a series of threats and symbolic moves, such as officially canceling the 60-year armistice that ended the Korean War and shuttering a showcase joint economic project with South Korea.

The threat of conflict with North Korea is dominating Kerry’s first trip to Asia as secretary of state, overshadowing economic and trade issues at the heart of the gradually warming relationship between the United States and China. The North Korea issue also partly pushed aside U.S. concerns over Chinese military expansion, human rights practices and alleged cybercrime, although U.S. officials said there would be no quid pro quo of lessened U.S. pressure on those issues in return for Chinese help reining in its ally.

Kerry addressed the crisis directly in Seoul on Thursday, assuring a jittery ally that the United States will defend it. Both Kerry and South Korean leaders appealed for calm.

North Korea’s Kim has readied midrange missiles for a possible symbolic test launch, but Kerry’s visit to nearby Seoul passed without that warning shot.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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