Seek­ing calm over N. Korea

Chi­nese diplo­mat urges Tiller­son to help defuse ten­sion.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY SIMON DENYER simon.denyer@wash­post.com

bei­jing — China urged the United States to re­main “cool­headed” over North Korea and not to turn its back on di­a­logue, as vis­it­ing Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son ex­pressed a “sense of ur­gency” to curb dan­ger­ous lev­els of ten­sion on the Korean Penin­sula.

On his first trip to Asia last week, Tiller­son ear­lier de­clared that diplo­macy has failed to per­suade North Korea to aban­don its nu­clear pro­gram and that a new ap­proach was needed. On Fri­day in Seoul, he warned omi­nously that all op­tions were on the ta­ble to counter the threat from Py­ongyang.

Pres­i­dent Trump weighed in Fri­day by goad­ing China via Twit­ter for not do­ing enough to help pre­vent its ally from “be­hav­ing very badly.”

But in a joint news con­fer­ence Satur­day with his Chi­nese coun­ter­part, Tiller­son struck a more diplo­matic note, choos­ing to play down dif­fer­ences with Bei­jing and af­firm that both coun­tries share the goal of a de­nu­cle­arized Korean Penin­sula.

“We share a com­mon view and a sense that ten­sions on the penin­sula are quite high right now and that things have reached a rather dan­ger­ous level, and we’ve com­mit­ted our­selves to do­ing every­thing we can to pre­vent any type of con­flict from break­ing out,” Tiller­son said.

Chi­nese For­eign Min­is­ter Wang Yi agreed, adding a note of ad­vice for Tiller­son.

“No mat­ter what hap­pens, we have to stay com­mit­ted to diplo­matic means as a way to seek peace­ful set­tle­ment,” Wang said. “We hope all par­ties, in­clud­ing our friends from the United States, could size up the sit­u­a­tion in a cool­headed and com­pre­hen­sive fash­ion, and ar­rive at a wise de­ci­sion,” he said.

In Fe­bru­ary, China sus­pended coal im­ports from North Korea for the rest of the year, a move that cuts off the regime’s ma­jor fi­nan­cial life­line. Wang pledged to main­tain U.N. sanc­tions on North Korea but said that Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tions also in­cluded “clear pro­vi­sions for ef­forts to re­sume talks to de-es­ca­late the ten­sion and to safe­guard sta­bil­ity on the penin­sula.”

North Korea has amassed a siz­able nu­clear stock­pile and ap­pears on the brink of be­ing able to strike the U.S. main­land and Amer­i­can al­lies in Asia. The sit­u­a­tion has emerged as a ma­jor, early for­eign-pol­icy test for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Tiller­son said China and the United States felt “a cer­tain sense of ur­gency” in try­ing to per­suade Py­ongyang to “make a course cor­rec­tion” and aban­don its nu­clear weapons pro­gram.

In Seoul on Fri­day, Tiller­son said the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion was ex­plor­ing an ar­ray of diplo­matic, eco­nomic and se­cu­rity mea­sures to put more pres­sure on North Korea — in­clud­ing tighter sanc­tions — and that al­though a mil­i­tary re­sponse was pos­si­ble if the threat from Py­ongyang’s mis­sile pro­gram were to grow, “we have many, many steps we can take be­fore we get to that point.”

Pre­vi­ous ef­forts to of­fer car­rot-and-stick diplo­macy to North Korea have failed, be­gin­ning with a 1994 deal un­der which Py­ongyang would have re­ceived aid and two pro­lif­er­a­tion-re­sis­tant nu­clear power plants in re­turn for freez­ing and even­tu­ally dis­man­tling its nu­clear weapons pro­gram.

That deal col­lapsed in 2002, and North Korea com­pleted its first atomic test in 2006. The Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts at a new deal col­lapsed, and Py­ongyang has man­aged to build up its stock­pile and re­fine its mis­siles de­spite what on pa­per look like crush­ing in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions.

But even faced with the fail­ure of pre­vi­ous talks and North Korea’s chronic in­abil­ity to keep pre­vi­ous promises, China in­sists that di­a­logue re­mains the only op­tion.

It has pro­posed a deal whereby the United States sus­pends its an­nual mil­i­tary ex­er­cises with South Korea in re­turn for North Korea’s sus­pend­ing its nu­clear pro­gram, but Wash­ing­ton has al­ready re­jected the idea, say­ing it first needs to see pos­i­tive ac­tion from Py­ongyang.

Wang said ten­sions had risen pre­cisely be­cause talks had bro­ken down, and he urged all sides to get back to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble.

Over­all, though, Tiller­son and Wang tried to strike a pos­i­tive tone, re­peat­ing the re­as­sur­ing mantra that U.S.-China re­la­tions were founded on the prin­ci­ples of avoid­ing con­flict and con­fronta­tion, and pro­mot­ing mu­tual re­spect and “win-win co­op­er­a­tion” — far from the sort of lan­guage Trump em­ployed on the cam­paign trail.

Wang called their talks “can­did, prag­matic and pro­duc­tive,” and Tiller­son talked about a “con­struc­tive and re­sult­sori­ented re­la­tion­ship.”

The sec­re­tary of state also talked of a trad­ing re­la­tion­ship that is “fair and pays div­i­dends both ways,” made a glanc­ing ref­er­ence to the coun­tries’ mar­itime dis­putes, and said the United States would con­tinue to “ad­vo­cate for uni­ver­sal hu­man rights and re­li­gious free­dom.”

The two men also said they were work­ing to­ward a face-to­face meet­ing be­tween Trump and Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping to build on a cor­dial tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion the pair had in Fe­bru­ary.

“We do look for­ward to this fu­ture op­por­tu­nity for the two lead­ers to meet,” Tiller­son said at the be­gin­ning of a meet­ing with State Coun­cilor Yang Jiechi, who out­ranks Wang as China’s top diplo­mat.

“The bet­ter they know one an­other, the stronger will be our bi­lat­eral re­la­tions, as well, be­cause they can pro­vide di­rec­tion and guid­ance to both of our gov­ern­ments on how we can work more closely to­gether to strengthen this very im­por­tant re­la­tion­ship not just for our two coun­tries but for many coun­tries in the re­gion and around the world,” Tiller­son said.

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