Are the US and China ready to cooperate more on N. Korea?

The two countries agreed that a UN resolution condemning North Korea's most recent nuclear test was necessary. But deep-rooted suspicions could stunt specific action.

Jacquelyn Martin/Reuters/Pool
US Secretary of State John Kerry leaves a news conference with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing on Wednesday.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and China’s foreign minister agreed Wednesday on the need for a UN resolution condemning North Korea for its latest nuclear test. But the two men did not agree on specific actions to take. 

The announcement followed an apparently tense five-hour meeting in Beijing between the two top diplomats. While the decision offers a hint of progress, it also highlights the wide gulf between the US and China on what should be done to address North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal.

Secretary Kerry, who started a three-nation Asia swing in Laos and Cambodia, vowed to raise the pressure on North Korea. He pressed China, the pariah nation’s main ally, to do the same, emphasizing that nations that "seek a global leadership role, or have a global leadership role, have a responsibility to deal with this threat." 

If China fails to do more, Kerry held out the possibility that Washington could take steps that Beijing strongly opposes, including deploying a missile system to South Korea to protect US allies in the region.

“This is a threat the United States must take extremely seriously,” Kerry said at a news conference with the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, after their meeting, according to The New York Times. “The United States will take all necessary steps to protect our people and allies. We don’t want to heighten security tensions. But we won’t walk away from any options.”

For his part, Mr. Wang insisted that China was already working hard to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and rejected any "groundless speculation" on its commitment to such efforts, reports Reuters.

China voted in the UN Security Council to sanction North Korea over its previous nuclear tests and condemned the latest, which took place on Jan. 6. But Wang made it clear that China was prepared to go only so far in cooperating with the US and suggested that Beijing would not support new penalties.

In addition to being Pyongyang’s closet ally, Beijing is its chief trading partner and a key source of economic assistance. 

"Sanctions are not an end in themselves," Wang said at the news conference on Wednesday. "The new resolution should not provoke new tension in the situation, still less destabilize the Korean Peninsula.”

Differences between Kerry and Wang were visible in their expressions. The Washington Post reports that the two men appeared tense as they spoke to reporters.

Wang drummed his fingers on the side of his podium as a grim-faced Kerry excoriated the actions of North Korea and its erratic leader, Kim Jong-un.

Kerry used unusually forceful language about the dangers posed by Pyongyang. Wang repeatedly mentioned the need for stability on the Korean Peninsula. While both agreed more sanctions are warranted, they said that the details would have to be resolved in talks at the United Nations Security Council in coming days.

Kerry said both sides agreed to accelerate talks on what the resolution will entail, reports The Associated Press. He said the US wants the Security Council to impose "significant new measures" to curtail North Korea's ability to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and increase pressure on Pyongyang to return to disarmament talks.

The so-called six-party talks – which have included South Korea, Russia, and Japan – began in 2003, but failed to lead to a disarmament agreement. North Korea conducted its first nuclear tests in 2006 and finally quit the talks in 2009. It has since conducted three additional tests, including the one on Jan. 6.

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