USA Foreign Policy First Look

US-China security talks on North Korea strain over tensions surrounding US student's death

The Trump administration is likely to put pressure on China to economically constrict North Korea, the isolated nation's largest ally.

US and Chinese officials meet prior to the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue at the State Department in Washington on June 21, 2017.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters
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Caption
  • Matthew Pennington
    Associated Press

Otto Warmbier's death after returning from North Korean imprisonment is stoking outrage in Washington and threatening to overshadow high-level US-Chinese talks Wednesday.

President Trump has been counting on China to use its economic leverage with leader Kim Jong Un's totalitarian government as American concern grows over North Korea's acceleration toward having a nuclear-tipped missile that can strike the US mainland.

Top US and Chinese diplomats and defense chiefs are meeting in the United States capital for security talks, and North Korea will get "top billing," according to Susan Thornton, the senior US diplomat for East Asia. The two world powers are trying to build on "positive momentum" created when Mr. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Florida in April, she said.

Wednesday's discussions replace a sprawling strategic and economic dialogue held annually under the Obama administration. It rarely produced significant results. This year's edition separates out the security aspects, and Secretary of State State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis are hosting Chinese foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi and Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of the People's Liberation Army's joint staff department.

Ms. Thornton said talks would cover the South China Sea, where Beijing's island-building and construction of possible military facilities have rattled neighbors and caused tension with Washington; US-Chinese military cooperation to reduce risk of conflict; and efforts to defeat the Islamic State group. Divisive trade issues will be tackled separately at a later date.

While Trump has heaped praise on Mr. Xi for trying to contain North Korea, which counts on China for some 90 percent of its trade, the effort has delivered few results. Trump appeared to acknowledge as much in a tweet Wednesday, a day after Mr. Warmbier's death.

"While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!" Trump wrote.

No cause of death has been determined for Warmbier who was detained for nearly a year-and-a-half in North Korea before being sent home in a coma last week. The University of Virginia student was accused of trying to steal a propaganda banner while visiting with a tour group and was convicted of subversion. His family is blaming North Korea for "awful, torturous mistreatment."

From Capitol Hill to the White House, pressure is mounting for a tough US response. The Trump administration is considering banning travel by US citizens to North Korea, officials said Tuesday, and Trump declared Warmbier's treatment a "total disgrace."

Like past presidents, Trump is finding the US has limited scope for punishing North Korea, particularly over the arrest of US citizens.

A ban on Americans visiting North Korea would only slightly add to Pyongyang's isolation and loss of revenue. The route to inflicting significant economic pain on Mr. Kim's government remains through China.

Thornton said the US will be seeking "concrete cooperation" with China on getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile programs and return to negotiations. Such talks are a seemingly distant goal since Kim is believed to see his weapons of mass destruction as a guarantee against invasion.

North Korea hasn't conducted a nuclear test explosion as feared earlier this year – a possible consequence of Chinese pressure – but it has kept up its rapid pace of missile launches, drawing another United Nations Security Council resolution this month and additional sanctions.

Last week, Mr. Tillerson told a Senate hearing that China's efforts on North Korea had been "uneven." On Tuesday, Thornton cited Chinese restrictions on imports of North Korean coal as "notable" progress. But she said the US wants more action against blacklisted North Korean companies doing business through China.

Washington has one threat it can use with Beijing: The possibility of "secondary" sanctions that go after Chinese companies doing business in North Korea. Such a move risks fraying relations between the world's two biggest economies.

Beijing, which wants resumed US negotiations with North Korea, is hoping for "positive outcomes" from Wednesday's dialogue, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.

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