China repeats call for restraint as North Korea tensions build, US senators pile pressure on Trump over Pyongyang

United States special envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun is set to arrive in Beijing for talks on Dec 19, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING/WASHINGTON (REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST) - China repeated its call for restraint and compromise on Thursday (Dec 19) amid growing tensions on the Korean peninsula, as renewed provocations from Pyongyang stoke fears it will break off talks with Washington and conduct a major weapons test.

Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui told reporters that tensions have somewhat risen over North Korea but the overall situation has not deviated from a track of dialogue and consultation.

"We hope that the concerned parties will practise restraint and meet each other halfway, and work through dialogue to realise positive interactions and quickly find a meeting point to find a resolution," Mr Luo said.

The comments come as the United States special envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun is set to arrive in the Chinese capital on Thursday for talks.

Pyongyang has conducted a series of weapons tests and waged a war of words with US President Donald Trump in recent weeks, stoking fears the two countries could return to a collision course.

Mr Luo on Thursday touted China and Russia's joint United Nations Security Council resolution calling for removal of some sanctions against Pyongyang as the best proposal to resolve the current stand-off. He said he would meet US officials to discuss North Korea issues.

Washington has opposed any removal of sanctions against Pyongyang, however, and has veto power in the 15-member Security Council. It is unclear when or if the draft resolution will be put to a vote.

Meanwhile, US senators from both parties are seeking to force Mr Trump's hand on North Korea, with leading Democrats warning on Wednesday that his diplomatic outreach is "on the brink of failure", and a bipartisan group pressing for stronger economic sanctions on North Korea leader Kim Jong Un's regime.

The moves illustrate growing alarm on Capitol Hill that the administration's stalled nuclear talks with Pyongyang could lead to an increase in hostilities on the Korean peninsula, as Mr Kim has promised an unwelcome "Christmas gift" by year's end.

The increasing pressure from lawmakers could put Mr Trump in a difficult spot, as his administration has struggled to convince the North Koreans to re-engage and moved to defuse tensions in recent weeks by limiting joint military drills with South Korea and blocking a United Nations forum on human rights abuses.

Despite those gestures, Mr Biegun left Seoul empty-handed this week after calling on Pyongyang to resume talks. At a news conference on Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators said the time had come to enact stricter "secondary sanctions" approved by Congress that would punish international banks and other entities which do business with the North.

They called the current international sanctions programme "leaky" and said the Kim regime has been able to skirt some of the restrictions and buy time to develop its weapons programme.

The new sanctions measures are included in the sweeping National Defence Authorisation Act that is being sent to the White House for Mr Trump's approval this week.

"It seems to me the best chance we have in changing the path North Korea is on is with crippling sanctions. The current sanctions regime is not enough," said Senator Patrick Toomey, a key architect of the provisions. He was flanked by legislative colleagues as well as Mr Fred Warmbier and Mrs Cindy Warmbier, the parents of Mr Otto Warmbier, a college student who died in 2017 just days after being released from 17 months of captivity in North Korea.

In a separate action, a group of eight Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, sent Mr Trump a three-page letter on Wednesday citing "grave and growing concern" at the prospect that the administration's North Korea policy is headed towards failure.

"We are disturbed that almost two years after the Singapore Summit, your administration has yet to develop a workable diplomatic process to structure real, serious and sustainable negotiations with North Korea," the Democrats wrote, referring to Mr Trump's first meeting with Mr Kim in June 2018.

The group supported continued diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang and cautioned against a return to Mr Trump's "fire and fury" 2017 rhetoric towards Pyongyang. The lawmakers instead called on Mr Trump to pursue a "phased process to verifiably dismantle" key North Korean nuclear weapons production facilities.

Pyongyang has called for the US to lift some economic sanctions in return for a partial dismantlement, but the Trump administration has insisted that the North relinquish its entire programme. White House officials declined to comment on Wednesday.

Mr Biegun left Seoul on Tuesday after meeting senior South Korean leaders in a visit that was viewed as a last-ditch effort to resuscitate engagement with the North, which has been stalled since a working-level meeting in Stockholm in October ended without a breakthrough.

Pyongyang, which has ramped up short-range missile tests since the spring, performed a "crucial test" at a long-range launch site last week, prompting US Air Force General Charles Brown to speculate that it could portend a long-range missile test.

That could force Mr Trump into a reckoning over one of his most important foreign policy initiatives at a time when the White House has been consumed by impeachment proceedings on Capitol Hill.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.