China to press N. Korea to rejoin nuclear talks

February 14, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BEIJING -- North Korea's claim that it has nuclear weapons is likely to reveal how much power China has -- or will choose to use -- over its renegade neighbor and ally.

China pledged yesterday that it would pressure North Korea to return to six-party talks despite North Korea's statement late last week that it would abandon talks and build up its "nuclear weapons arsenal."

In an official statement, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said he had spoken with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and that China will "strive to make the situation develop in a positive direction so that the six-party talks could be resumed as soon as possible."

North Korea demanded yesterday that the United States withdraw its 37,000 troops in South Korea to get nuclear talks back on track.

For its part, China is likely to minimize the extent of the crisis even as it leans on North Korea to come back to negotiations, experts on Northeast Asia said.

As North Korea's only ally, China is also feeling deeply discomfited in the aftermath of the nuclear claim and will struggle to resolve the crisis even as Beijing and Washington jockey over competing long-term interests in the region, scholars said.

"China's strategy now is to deal with the issue in a low-profile approach," said Jin Canrong, associate dean of the School of International Studies at Peoples' University.

"China will increase its pressure [on North Korea]," Jin added, and will probe to determine if Pyongyang is simply bluffing about nuclear weapons as a negotiating ploy.

If world powers come to believe that North Korea is telling the truth about its nuclear arsenal, then China may be forced to let the matter go to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions against Pyongyang, policymakers and academics in Beijing said in interviews in recent months.

Like the United States, China wants the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons to avoid sparking a nuclear arms race in the region. Both nations seek resolution of the current deadlock through the six-party talks China began holding in 2003, experts said.

South Korea's foreign minister, Ban Ki Moon, said yesterday that the United States and North Korea could hold some direct talks -- on which North Korea has insisted -- in the course of renewed six-party negotiations. Ban is in Washington for a previously scheduled meeting with Rice today.

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