Kerry Hails China in Urging North Korea to End Nuclear Programs

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hailed China’s efforts to push North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons aspirations, saying such a move would help spur normal relations between Kim Jong Un’s regime and the region.

Kerry discussed North Korea’s nuclear program in separate meetings in Brunei yesterday with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his counterparts from Japan and South Korea. North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun is also attending the security forum hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“All of us, all four of us, are absolutely united and absolutely firm in our insistence that the future with respect to North Korea must include denuclearization,” Kerry told reporters in Brunei. “We have major, major issues with respect to North Korea, and China is cooperating with us with respect to that, and China has helped to make a difference.”

The U.S.-China cooperation on North Korea contrasted with differences over the fate of Edward Snowden, an American accused of revealing secret surveillance programs allowed by Hong Kong to leave the city for Russia, as well as how to resolve disputes over territory in the South China Sea. Kerry said cooperation among the region’s major powers is critical to peace and economic growth in Asia.

“We want North Korea to understand that the region will be better with denuclearization,” Kerry said. North Korea’s ability to have normal ties with the U.S. and other countries “lies at the end of engaging in a serious set of steps to denuclearize, and serious negotiations that could accompany that.”

China Moves

Tensions had escalated in February after North Korea conducted another nuclear test, and then eased again last month when the North proposed talks with South Korea and then the U.S. The turnaround has sparked a flurry of diplomatic activity even as North Korea’s adherence to its nuclear goals remains an impediment to negotiations resuming.

After meeting Pak yesterday, Wang reiterated China’s commitment to denuclearize North Korea and called for the resumption of six-party talks. China, the North’s main economic and diplomatic ally, in May tightened enforcement of United Nations sanctions targeting North Korea’s financial transactions.

“The Chinese side will continue to encourage all the parties concerned to work together towards the common goal and create conditions for bringing the Korean nuclear issue back to the track of dialogue,” Wang, in his first Asean meeting as foreign minister since President Xi Jinping took office in March, said on the sidelines of the forum.

North Korea

North Korea will likely hold a press conference after the Asean meetings conclude, Yonhap News reported, citing Ri Hung Sik, director of the Foreign Ministry’s department of international organization.

North Korea on June 16 suggested high-level talks with the U.S. on a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, less than a week after it scrapped a meeting it proposed with the South, citing a protocol dispute. Any talks between the North and the U.S. would be the first since February 2012, when the North fired a long-range rocket to break a deal for 240,000 metric tons of food in exchange for a moratorium on weapons testing.

Even so, North Korea will only denuclearize when the entire world, including the U.S., does the same, according to the regime’s top envoy to the United Nations, Sin Son Ho, who spoke at a rare press conference in New York on June 21.

The six-party talks, which involve North and South Korea, Japan, the U.S., Russia and China, started in 2003 as a process chaired by China. They stalled in December 2008 with North Korea officially quitting the process in 2009 and revealing a new uranium enrichment facility a year later.

Sea Tensions

While agreeing on a common approach to North Korea, tensions between China and Japan remain high in the East China Sea, where both countries claim islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Four Chinese government vessels entered Japanese-administered waters around the disputed islands early yesterday, the coastguard said in a statement.

The ships’ movements appeared timed to coincide with the arrival of four Japanese fishing vessels carrying activists, including a member of the lower house of Japan’s parliament, public broadcaster NHK said. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan would maintain a firm stance in relations with China.

Asean Talks

China moved June 30 to ease tensions with fellow claimants in the South China Sea by agreeing to talks on rules for operating in the waters. Competition for oil, gas and fish has led to confrontations at sea and pushed the Philippines to boost military cooperation with the U.S. and Japan.

The Philippines said the same day that “the massive presence of Chinese military and para-military ships” around two land features it claims in the South China Sea posed “threats to efforts to maintain maritime peace and stability in the region.” At the same time, it welcomed the negotiation of a code of conduct in the waters.

“We want a situation where there is peace, there is development and really the tensions do not escalate,” Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told reporters yesterday, referring to non-claimant countries like Singapore. “To make sure the tensions do not escalate, we’ll need a way of putting in a framework for people to behave.”

A code of conduct is in China’s interest because it will help prevent incidents from escalating while not affecting its strategy to negotiate with individual countries on disputed territory, according to Ni Lexiong, a professor of international military affairs and diplomacy at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

“China doesn’t want the situation in the South China Sea to deteriorate,” Ni said by phone. “A code of conduct will help countries in the area develop together.”