China reaffirms backing of N. Korea but exposes its frustration

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BEIJING -- China's foreign minister said Saturday that Beijing would not abandon North Korea, reiterating China's long-standing position that dialogue, not sanctions, was the best way to persuade the North to abandon its nuclear weapons.

At a news conference during the National People's Congress, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi suggested that China's support for tougher U.N. sanctions against North Korea should not be interpreted as a basic change in China's attitude.

"We always believe that sanctions are not the end of the Security Council actions, nor are sanctions the fundamental way to resolve the relevant issues," said Mr. Yang, who addressed foreign policy questions from Chinese and foreign reporters.

But the careful remarks masked the unparalleled plain-spoken discussions among China's officials and analysts about the value of supporting North Korea even as it continues to develop nuclear weapons and unleashes new threats to attack the United States and South Korea.

In the aftermath of North Korea's third nuclear test in February, China last week joined the United States to push for tougher U.N. sanctions against the North. China's decision to support them also raised the possibility that it might take even bolder steps against its recalcitrant ally.

The clearest sign of China's exasperation with North Korea came on Thursday at a side session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory group to the government that was open to journalists.

Delegates to the conference, according to a senior Communist Party official, Qiu Yuanping, talked about whether to "keep or dump" North Korea and debated whether China, as a major power, should "fight or talk" with the North.

Ms. Qiu's description of the spirited debate was quite extraordinary. She made the remarks in the presence of reporters at a session entitled "Friendship with Foreign Countries" that was attended by several Chinese ambassadors who were visiting Beijing from their posts abroad.

As deputy director of the Communist Party's Central Foreign Affairs Office, a secretive body that gives foreign policy advice to top leaders, Ms. Qiu usually opts for discretion. The admission by a senior Communist Party official that North Korea is a nettlesome neighbor is especially striking because China conducts its relations with North Korea chiefly through the comradely auspices of the party, rather than the Foreign Ministry.

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