Blinken urges China to convince North Korea to denuclearize

SEOUL, South Korea: America’s top diplomat on Thursday pressed China to use its “tremendous influence” to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, hours after the North said it will ignore US offers to resume negotiations.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke at the end of high-profile security talks in Seoul, which included Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and South Korean foreign and defense ministers. The so-called “two plus two” meeting, the first of its kind in five years, came as President Joe Biden is pushing to restore America’s alliances in Asia in the face of growing challenges from China and North Korea.

“Beijing has an interest, a clear self-interest in helping to pursue denuclearization of (North Korea) because it is a source of instability. It is a source of danger and obviously a threat to us and our partners,” Blinken told a news conference.

He said Beijing has “a critical role to play” to persuade North Korea to denuclearize because most of the North’s external trade goes through China. Blinken stressed that China is obligated by UN Security Council resolutions to fully enforce sanctions imposed over North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests.

China, the North’s last major ally and biggest aid benefactor, has long been suspected of avoiding completely implementing sanctions on the North. Some observers say China believes a unified, pro-US Korea established on its doorstep would undermine its strategic interests, and worries that a humanitarian disaster in North Korea could push swarms of refugees flooding over the countries’ border.

Earlier Thursday, Choe Son Hui, North Korea’s first vice foreign minister, confirmed Blinken’s previous announcement that Washington had reached out to Pyongyang through several channels starting in mid-February, but it hasn’t received any response.

Choe called the US outreach a “time-delaying trick” and said North Korea would keep discarding similar offers for talks unless Washington withdraws its hostility. “What has been heard from the US since the emergence of the new regime is only a lunatic theory of ‘threat from North Korea’ and groundless rhetoric about ‘complete denuclearization,’” she said.

Asked about Choe’s statement, Blinken said he was aware but said he’s more interested in the comments and thoughts of US allies and partners while he was making a regional tour. South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said Thursday’s talks dealt with the North Korean statement and its intentions. He said South Korea hopes for the early resumption of US-North Korean talks.

US-led diplomacy focusing on North Korea’s nuclear weapons remains stalemated for about two years because of disputes over US-led sanctions. Experts are debating whether the United States and its allies should settle for a deal that would freeze North Korea’s nuclear activities in return for relaxing sanctions to prevent its arsenal from growing.

Earlier this week, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned the United States to “refrain from causing a stink,” while criticizing the US-South Korean drills that her government views as an invasion rehearsal.

Some experts say North Korea, which is eager to win sanctions relief, may further raise animosities with missile tests to boost its leverage in any negotiations with the United States. North Korea’s moribund economy is under additional pressure because of the pandemic-related border closure that has significantly shrunk its external trade and a spate of natural disasters last summer.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) bump elbows with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong after an initialing ceremony for Special Measures Agreement at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, March 18, 2021. AP PHOTO

After Thursday’s talks, Blinken, Austin and their South Korean counterparts said in a joint statement that North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile issues are “a priority for the alliance” and reaffirmed a shared commitment to address those issues.

Austin said the US is fully committed to the defense of South Korea, using “the full range of US capabilities, including our extended deterrent.” Blinken slammed North Korea’s human rights record for a second straight day, saying that people in North Korea “continue to suffer widespread and systematic abuses at the hands of a repressive government.”

Later Thursday, Blinken and Austin met South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was once a driving force behind the early part of the US-North Korean nuclear diplomacy in 2018. Moon said that Seoul will continue close cooperation with Washington to achieve complete denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Blinken and Austin are on the first overseas trip by Cabinet-level officials since Biden took office in January. They visited Japan before coming to Seoul.

South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook said that during Thursday’s talks the US side stressed the importance of a US-led trilateral security cooperation involving Seoul and Tokyo many times. He said South Korea in principle agrees on the US view. Ties between Seoul and Tokyo have suffered major setbacks in recent years over issues stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.

Blinken said Thursday’s talks discussed China’s role, and “we are clear eyed about Beijing’s consistent failure to uphold its commitments.”

“And we spoke about how Beijing’s aggressive and authoritarian behavior are challenging the stability and security prosperity of the Pacific region,” he said. “Beijing’s actions make forging a common approach among our allies all the more important at a time when we’re seeing a rollback of democracy and human rights around the world, including in Burma.”

Blinken will meet senior Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska, on his way back to Washington, while Austin will travel on to New Delhi for talks with Indian officials.

China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, said that Beijing doesn’t expect the Alaska talks will resolve all the issues between China and the US and “we don’t hold overly high hopes.” Cu still added that he hoped the meeting would be “a start and that the two sides can begin a dialogue process that is candid, constructive and realistic.”

During Thursday’s talks, Chung said there wasn’t a direct discussion on the issue of South Korea joining an expanded format of the Indo-Pacific group that involves the United States, Japan, Australia and India — known as the Quad. Chung maintained a government stance that South Korea can join any forum if it values transparency, openness and inclusiveness and serves its national interests.