China tells North Korea to return to nuclear talks

Beijing strikes stern pose toward its ally

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BEIJING -- The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, bluntly told a North Korean envoy Friday that his country should return to diplomatic talks intended to rid it of its nuclear weapons, according to a state-run Chinese news agency.

"The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and lasting peace on the peninsula is what the people want and also the trend of the times," Mr. Xi said in a meeting at the Great Hall of the People with Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, a personal envoy of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, the China News Service reported.

In telling the North that it should return to negotiations with the United States and others, Mr. Xi struck a stern tone, saying, "The Chinese position is very clear: No matter how the situation changes, relevant parties should all adhere to the goal of denuclearization of the peninsula, persist in safeguarding its peace and stability, and stick to solving problems through dialogue and consultation."

Vice Marshal Choe had already suggested Thursday that the North was open to at least some type of dialogue. But Mr. Xi's warning made clear that he was insisting on international talks, and appeared to signal China's frustration with its troublesome ward. Although China is North Korea's economic benefactor, Mr. Kim has been dismissive of Chinese entreaties that it not upend the status quo in the region by provoking the West with missile and nuclear tests.

In calling for a resumption of the six-party talks -- the diplomatic effort among countries including China and the United States that collapsed in 2008 when North Korea walked out -- Mr. Xi might also have been posing a challenge to the Obama administration.

The United States and South Korea have insisted on preconditions for the talks, including a pledge from North Korea that it would abandon its nuclear program. The North has rebuffed that condition in the past, and U.S. experts say Mr. Kim is unlikely to back down.

China would most likely agree to new six-party talks without preconditions, according to Cai Jian, deputy director of Fudan University's Center for Korean Studies in Shanghai. "China believes that the parties sitting down for talks is progress in itself," Mr. Cai said.

Analysts have depicted Vice Marshal Choe's three-day visit to Beijing as a mission to repair the prickly relationship between his country and China. The vice marshal handed Mr. Xi a letter from Mr. Kim, but the contents were not disclosed.

Mr. Xi's statement Friday followed another clear message delivered in April, when he said, "No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain."

As the vice marshal proceeded through the standard meetings in Beijing with two senior Communist Party leaders, the usual conduit for relations between the two countries, and then a meeting with a senior Chinese military commander, it had been unclear whether he would even be accorded an audience with Mr. Xi, the Chinese president. The meeting with Mr. Xi at the Great Hall of the People was announced only after it had occurred.

In an earlier encounter Friday with the vice marshal, a senior Chinese military commander had delivered a message similar to Mr. Xi's, and suggested that North Korea's nuclear program was responsible for the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

By the standards of China's carefully worded statements, the remarks by the commander, Gen. Fan Changlong, a vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission, were unusually strong. They were devoid of any ritualistic references to the friendship between the allies.

"In recent years, the Korean Peninsula has frequently seen rapidly escalating tensions due to the Korean nuclear issue," Gen. Fan was quoted as saying by the China News Service. "Strategic differences between parties have been exacerbated, endangering the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula." Gen. Fan appealed for "dialogue and consultation" and "unremitting efforts" toward peace.

In reply to Gen. Fan, the vice marshal was quoted as saying North Korea was willing to "search for a way to solve problems with dialogue."

A U.S. expert on North Korea, Jonathan D. Pollack, said there was "no realistic prospect for any near-term resumption of diplomacy with Pyongyang." He added, however, that "North Korean actions in recent months have enabled the most candid and realistic discussions between Washington and Beijing that have ever taken place."

The meeting with the vice marshal comes a little more than two weeks before a planned summit in California between President Barack Obama and the Chinese leader.

North Korea had requested meetings in Beijing for the past several months but had been turned down by the Chinese leadership, Chinese analysts said. It appeared that the Chinese relented after the announcement of the meeting between Mr. Xi and Mr. Obama. North Korea will almost certainly be one of the top issues on the agenda at the meeting between Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi.

North Korea's recent belligerence poses a conundrum for China, which has long seen the impoverished police state as a buffer against the alliance between the United States and South Korea.

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