BEIJING (REUTERS) - The United States and China agreed on Saturday to make a joint effort to push for the peaceful denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, following weeks of bellicose rhetoric from North Korea and rising tensions in northeast Asia.
US Secretary of State John Kerry met China’s top leaders in a bid to persuade them to exert pressure on North Korea, whose main diplomatic supporter is Beijing, to scale back its belligerence and, eventually, return to nuclear talks.
Before travelling to Beijing for the first time as secretary of state, Mr Kerry had 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.
Mr Kerry and China’s top diplomat, State Councillor Yang Jiechi, said both countries supported the goal of denuclearising 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,” Mr Kerry told reporters, standing next to Yang at a state guesthouse in western Beijing.
“We agreed that this is critically important for the stability of the region and indeed for the world and for all of our non-proliferation efforts.”
But North Korea has repeatedly said it will not abandon nuclear weapons which it described on Friday as its “treasured”guarantor of security.
Mr Yang said China’s stance on maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula was clear and consistent.
“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 Sept. 19 joint statement of 2005.”
At a news conference in Seoul on Friday and in a US-South Korean joint statement issued on Saturday, Mr Kerry signalled the US preference for diplomacy to end the tension, but stressed North Korea must take “meaningful” steps on denuclearisation.
The United States and its allies believe the North violated the 2005 aid-for-denuclearisation deal by conducting a nuclear test in 2006 and pursuing a uranium enrichment programme that would give it a second path to a nuclear weapon in addition to its plutonium-based programme.
As the North’s main trading partner, financial backer and the closest thing it has to a diplomatic ally, China has a unique ability to use its leverage against the impoverished, isolated state, Mr Kerry said in Seoul before leaving for Beijing.
Mr Kerry earlier in the day characterised his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping as “constructive and forward-leaning”, though he did not elaborate.
Beijing, which sided with North Korea in the 1950-53 civil war against the US-backed South, has been reluctant to apply pressure on Pyongyang, fearing the instability that could result if the North were to implode and send floods of refugees into China.
It has also looked askance at US military drills in South Korea.
Xinhua 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-defence 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 Mr 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, US 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”.
Mr Kerry’s visit to Asia, which will include a stop in Tokyo on Sunday, takes place after weeks of shrill North Korean threats of war since the imposition of new UN sanctions in response to its third nuclear test in February.
North Korean television made no mention of Mr Kerry’s visit and devoted most of its reports to preparations for Monday’s celebrations marking the birth date of state founder Kim Il Sung.
These included a numerous floral tributes and grandiose flower show, foreign visitors seeing the sights of the capital ahead of the festivities and the unveiling of a monument in a provincial town.
But Rodong Sinmun, the ruling Workers’ Party’s newspaper, issued a fresh denunciation of joint US-South Korean military exercises, saying: “The outbreak of nuclear war has now become a fait accompli, owing to the US and the South Korean puppet forces.
“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.”
However, 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.
Yonhap said there had been no signs of any movement by the mobile launchers since Thursday, “or that missile launches are imminent”.