U.S. urges China to influence N. Korea to reduce tensions: State Dept.

November 25, 2010 11:51 am 

By Hwang Doo-hyong

WASHINGTON, Nov. 25 — The United States Wednesday urged China to persuade North Korea to refrain from provoking South Korea and abide by its denuclearization commitment.

"China does have influence with North Korea and we would hope and expect that China will use that influence, first to reduce tensions that have arisen as a result of North Korean provocations and then secondly to continue to encourage North Korea to take affirmative steps to denuclearize," said Philip Crowley, State Department spokesman. "China is pivotal in moving North Korea in a fundamentally different direction."

Crowley was addressing North Korea's firing of scores of artillery shells Tuesday at an island near the disputed sea border in the Yellow Sea, killing four soldiers and civilians and injuring dozens of others.

The shelling came amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula after the sinking of a South Korean warship and North Korea's most recent disclosure of a uranium enrichment plant, which could produce material for nuclear warheads. Pyongyang denies involvement in the Cheonan's sinking, which killed 46 sailors in the Yellow Sea in March.

Crowley said the U.S. sees the attack as single "premeditated act" and does not expect "an extended military confrontation."

U.S. President Barack Obama Tuesday condemned the North for the shelling and called South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to agree to hold joint military drills in the Yellow Sea for several days from Sunday with the participation of the supercarrier USS George Washington.

China has raised objections to South Korean-U.S. joint naval exercises in waters off China since the sinking of the Cheonan, while conducting its own naval drills in nearby waters in an apparent showdown.

China has not blamed North Korea for the Cheonan's sinking, and greatly diluted the U.N. Security Council presidential statement to denounce the sinking.

Earlier in the day, the Chinese Foreign Ministry again maintained a neutral stance, urging the two Koreas to "retain calm and restraint" and begin dialogue as soon as possible to avoid further escalation of tensions.

China has been lukewarm to imposing sanctions on North Korea due to fears that instability would result in a massive influx of refugees across their shared border or a unified Korean Peninsula under South Korean and U.S. control. The U.N. slapped sanctions on North Korea after its nuclear and missile tests early last year.

China is seen as key to implementing sanctions on North Korea as Beijing provides more than 80 percent of the food, oil and other necessities to its isolated, impoverished communist ally.

Speaking on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said, "China will not exert the sort of influence they could, given how dependent North Korea is. They essentially don't want North Korea to unravel. So China prefers some version of this dangerous status quo to anything that would lead to the dissolution of North Korea."

Haass also said that Beijing does not want another war in the Korean Peninsula "because they know that's the last war."

"North Korea will fade, and then you will have a united Korea Peninsula in the American strategic and diplomatic orbit," he said. "That adds to China's sense of encirclement. That would be a strategic setback."

Victor Cha, the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he does not expect much from China.

"China has only spoken out to urge all parties to exercise restraint," Cha said. "North Korea, or course, denies it instigated the clash and places all blame on the South."

Cha attributed North Korea's shelling to the reluctance on the part of the U.S. and South Korea to return to the six-party talks, which have been deadlocked over the Cheonan's sinking.

"It seems North Korea did not get the reaction it was hoping for from the regional actors in response to the revelations of its nuclear program," the scholar said. "The United States and South Korea reaffirmed their stance not to resume the six-party talks until the North demonstrates it is taking concrete and irreversible steps towards denuclearization."

U.S. officials had expressed concerns about the uranium facility, but did not categorize it as a "crisis" that should expedite the resumption of the multilateral nuclear talks, last held in December 2008.

Stephen Bosworth, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, said in Beijing Wednesday that he and Chinese officials reconfirmed the need to resolve the North Korean nuclear impasse through the six-party talks, involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.

The envoy, however, said Washington will not consider resuming the nuclear talks "while active programs are under way or while there is a possibility that the North Koreans will test another nuclear device or test a missile."

Cha said the worst may not be over.

"We cannot rule out the possibility of more attacks and provocations from the North given its recent belligerent behavior," he said. "The time between North Korean provocations seems to be shrinking significantly with each new incident."

The North's growing belligerence "could reflect growing instability in the North, the succession process, or a combination of both," he said.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed that theme.

"This is also tied, we think, to the succession of this young 27-year-old who's going to take over at some point in the future," Mullen told ABC's "The View."

Mullen said Sunday that the North's move to push ahead with the uranium-based nuclear weapons program "has to do with a succession plan for his son," referring to ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who is about to transfer power to his third and youngest son, Jong-un.

The heir is also believed to be behind the Cheonan's sinking, just like his father is suspected of masterminding the downing of a Korean Air plane in 1987, killing all 115 passengers, ahead of South Korea's hosting of the 1988 Summer Olympics.

Kim Jong-il was being groomed at the time to succeed his father and North Korea's founder, Kim Il-sung, who died of a heart attack in 1994.

Unlike Kim Il-sung, who was a guerrilla leader against Japanese colonists, neither Kim Jong-il nor Kim Jong-un has a military background, although Jong-un was named the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the North's ruling Workers' Party headed by Kim Jong-il.

The ailing North Korean leader visited China twice this year, in May and August, to rally Chinese support for the third-generation power transition, unprecedented in a communist country.

Photos and TV footage of Kim Jong-il released in recent months show him limping on his left leg and hardly using his left arm. He apparently suffered a stroke in 2008. (PNA/Yonhap)

ALM/ebp

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