Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pushed back against the tougher U.S. line on North Korea, reiterating his country’s view that the only way to rein in its reclusive neighbor is through talks.
Wang spoke at a briefing in Beijing with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who in Seoul on Friday refused to rule out a preemptive strike against Pyongyang if the threat from its weapons program was deemed severe enough. While that’s largely in line with prior U.S. positions, Tillerson’s comments — and Twitter posts from President Donald Trump — signal the level of concern over North Korea is rising.
“The most important principle we have identified is that no matter what happens, we have to stay committed to diplomatic means as a way to seek a peaceful settlement,” Wang said on Saturday. “We hope all parties, including our friends from the United States, could size up the situation in a cool-headed and comprehensive fashion and arrive at a wise decision.”
The officials’ comments underscored how the contours of the debate over North Korea haven’t changed — even though Tillerson’s State Department says 20 years of diplomacy to curtail Pyongyang have failed and it’s time for a new approach. China wants the U.S. and North Korea to negotiate directly; the U.S. insists North Korean leader Kim Jong Un make a credible show he’s willing to give up his nuclear program before talks can begin.
In Seoul, Tillerson laid out details of the new U.S. plan, saying it would focus on getting China to better enforce United Nations sanctions against North Korea. He also said the threat posed by the regime was increasing: “Let me be very clear: this policy of strategic patience has ended.”
After Tillerson spoke on Friday, Trump posted on Twitter that “North Korea is behaving very badly” and “China has done little to help!”
Kim has said he’s close to developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching North America. That and several recent missile tests have injected new urgency into efforts to halt his weapons program.
In an interview published Saturday, Tillerson called the North Korea threat “imminent.” He said he hadn’t known about Trump’s tweet beforehand but that it was consistent with his own message.
The interview was among the first Tillerson has done since becoming secretary of state. The reporter, from the conservative-leaning Independent Journal Review website, was the only journalist the State Department allowed to travel on Tillerson’s plane for the three-nation Asia trip. The decision drew protests from other news organizations, which for decades have traveled with the secretary to report the news.
Tillerson’s tone was more moderate when he spoke alongside Wang on Saturday, saying Washington and Beijing had agreed to work together to confront North Korea.
“We share a common view and a sense that tensions on the peninsula are quite high right now, and things have reached a rather dangerous level,” Tillerson said. “We’ve committed ourselves to do everything we can to prevent any type of conflict from breaking out.”
Wang said China has come up with proposals for all sides to study, though he didn’t detail them. While Tillerson has said a key component of his new effort involves pressing China — North Korea’s main ally and economic lifeline — to better enforce UN sanctions, Wang said the matter is primarily between the U.S. and Pyongyang.
“The Korean peninsula nuclear issue in nature is an issue between the United States and the DPRK,” Wang said, using the acronym for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “It is obliged upon all parties to implement the sanctions and restart the talks at the same time.”