US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has urged China to use its “tremendous influence” to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, adding that Washington was considering both pressure and diplomatic options for dealing with Pyongyang.
Blinken was speaking at the end of high-profile security talks in the South Korean capital, Seoul, on Thursday, hours after a senior North Korean diplomat rejected any negotiations until the US changed its “hostile” policies.
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US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin as well as South Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Chung Eui-yong and Minister of Defense Suh Wook participated in the security talks in Seoul.
The so-called “two plus two” meeting, the first of its kind in five years, is part of US President Joe Biden’s push to restore Washington’s alliances in Asia in the face of growing challenges from China and North Korea.
Blinken and Austin had visited Japan before coming to Seoul.
The US top diplomat told a joint briefing with South Korean officials that China has “a critical role to play” in persuading North Korea to denuclearise because most of North Korea’s external trade goes through China.
“Beijing has an interest, a clear self-interest in helping to pursue denuclearisation 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,” he said.
The Biden administration will soon complete its review of North Korea policy in consultation with South Korea, Japan and other allies, Blinken said, and that would include “resuming pressure options and the potential for future diplomacy”.
He declined to elaborate when asked what approach the US would take after the review.
‘Everything is on the table’
But when asked at a separate online roundtable with Korean journalists if Biden would meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Blinken said Washington is exploring how to convince North Korea to make progress on denuclearisation by considering both “different kinds of pressure points” and diplomacy.
“In a sense, everything is on the table. We have a very open mind about it,” he said.
Earlier on 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.
Choe called the US outreach a “delaying trick” and said North Korea would keep disregarding similar offers for talks unless Washington withdraws its hostility.
Asked about Choe’s statement, Blinken said he was aware of it but said he was more interested in the comments and thoughts of US allies and partners while he was making the regional tour.
Following Thursday’s talks, the US and South Korea issued a joint statement, pledging to work together to address North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile issues as well as challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride said while the statement reaffirmed the US and South Korea’s commitment to their 70-year-old alliance, “differences do remain between the two allies” on policies towards North Korea and China.
On Pyongyang, Blinken said Washington’s strategy would not only address security concerns but also the “repressive” North Korean government’s “widespread, systematic abuses” of its people.
That line appears tougher than the stance taken by the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and former US President Donald Trump, who activists had accused of overlooking the North Korean human rights issue as they sought to improve ties and pursued summits with Kim.
Moon has called for Biden to build on progress made by Kim and Trump from their unprecedented summit in Singapore in 2018, which the South Korean foreign minister said could provide the groundwork for future talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
“We think the Singapore agreement deserves sufficient consideration as it has basic principles for improving North Korea-US relations, establishing peace and achieving denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula,” Chung told the briefing.
China’s ‘aggressive behaviour’
On Beijing, Blinken – while stressing its role in convincing North Korea to denuclearise – went on to blame China for undermining regional stability and security with its “aggressive and authoritarian behaviour”.
He also called for unity among allies to counter China.
South Korea, however, is hesitant to provoke China, which is its largest economic partner, said Al Jazeera’s McBride.
But while there was “no actual reference to China by name” in the US-South Korea statement, “there were references to the need to respect international law, need to keep an open and free Indo-Pacific”, he noted.
“This is a veiled reference to the claims that China is making aggressive territorial demands in the East and South China Seas,” said McBride.
Beijing has rebuked Blinken’s similar remarks in Tokyo, and his renewed criticism came ahead of his first in-person meetings with Chinese counterparts in Alaska on Thursday.
China’s ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, said: “We don’t hold overly high hopes,” for the Alaska talks to resolve all the issues between China and the US. Cui 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”.
But China’s foreign ministry said on Thursday it would not make concessions to the US on key issues ahead of the Alaska meeting.
“China has no room for compromise on issues concerning its sovereignty, security and core interests,” spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters.