BEIJING/SEOUL – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with top officials from China — North Korea’s key ally and top aid provider — Saturday to press them to rein in a defiant Pyongyang, seeking Beijing’s help to defuse soaring nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Kerry held talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and met with President Xi Jinping after flying in from a summit in South Korea with President Park Geun Hye, where he offered public U.S. support for her plans to initiate some trust-building with the North.
The Korean Peninsula has been engulfed by escalating military tensions and dire threats of nuclear war since Pyongyang launched a rocket last December and conducted its third nuclear test in February.
China has backed the North since the 1950-53 Korean War and could wield tremendous leverage over the isolated communist regime thanks to the vital aid it provides, including almost all of Pyongyang’s energy imports.
But analysts say Beijing is wary of pushing too hard for fear of destabilizing its neighbor, which could send a wave of hungry refugees flooding into China and ultimately lead to a reunified Korea allied with the United States.
China and the U.S. have a sometimes strained relationship, with Beijing uneasy over Washington’s “rebalancing” toward Asia, and Kerry’s first visit to the region since becoming the top American diplomat has been completely overshadowed by the Korean crisis.
Washington is seeking to persuade Beijing to help rein in the bellicose threats from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table over its nuclear program.
China is estimated to provide as much as 90 percent of North Korea’s energy imports, 80 percent of its consumer goods and 45 percent of its food, according to the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations.
Despite intelligence reports that the North has prepared what would be a highly provocative, medium-range missile launch, Park has in recent days made some conciliatory gestures to Pyongyang.
In a meeting with her ruling party officials Friday, Park said the South should meet with the North and “listen to what North Korea thinks.”
While Kerry berated Pyongyang’s “unacceptable” rhetoric and warned that any missile launch would be a “huge mistake,” he also took pains to stress Washington’s backing for Park’s initiative. “President Park was elected with a different vision for the possibilities of peace and we honor that vision . . . and we hope that vision is the one that will actually take hold here,” he said.
In another sign of U.S. hopes of defusing tensions, Kerry did not visit the truce village of Panmunjom, a common stop for foreign leaders visiting Seoul.
Kerry also attempted to tamp down the significance of a recent U.S. intelligence report that concluded that North Korea is now capable of making a nuclear warhead that can be mounted on a ballistic missile and fired. Kerry said that “it is inaccurate to suggest” that North Korea “has fully tested, developed or demonstrated capabilities that are articulated in that report.”