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 recent comments — and Twitter posts from President Donald Trump — suggest the level of anxiety 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 two 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. China wants the U.S. and North Korea to negotiate directly; the U.S. insists Kim Jong Un make a credible show he’s willing to give up his nuclear program before talks can begin.
In his comments in Seoul, Tillerson laid out details of the U.S. approach, 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.”
His tone was more moderate when he spoke alongside Wang on Saturday, saying the countries had agreed to work together to confront North Korea.
“I think 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.”