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China says it is not responsible for North Korean nuclear issue

Chinese and North Korean flags outside the closed Ryugyong Korean Restaurant in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, China, April 12, 2016. Photo: Reuters

China hit back on Tuesday in unusually strong terms at repeated calls from the US to put more pressure on North Korea, urging a halt to what it called the "China responsibility theory", and saying all parties needed to pull their weight.

US President Donald Trump took a more conciliatory tone at a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday, but he has expressed some impatience that China, with its close economic and diplomatic ties to Pyongyang, is not doing enough to rein in North Korea.

That feeling has become particularly acute since Pyongyang launched an intercontinental ballistic missile that some experts believe could have the range to reach Alaska, and parts of the US West Coast.

Asked about calls from the US, Japan and others for China to put more pressure on North Korea, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that it was not China ratcheting up tension and the key to a resolution did not lie with Beijing.

"As we said repeatedly, the crux of the North Korean nuclear issue rests on the conflict between North Korea and the US and it is in essence a security issue," Geng told a daily news briefing. "The Chinese side is neither the focal point of the conflict of the North Korean nuclear issue nor the catalyzer for escalation of tensions at present, and it does not hold the key to solving the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue."

Geng went on to accuse "certain people", without naming them, of "exaggerating and playing up the so-called 'China responsibility’ theory". "I think this either shows lack of a full, correct knowledge of the issue, or there are ulterior motives for it, trying to shift responsibility," he added.

China has been making unremitting efforts and has played a constructive role, but all parties have to meet each other half way, Geng said.

'Distorted picture'

The rant during the Foreign Ministry's regular press briefing is a sign that the Chinese government may be feeling the pressure from the international community, spearheaded by the US that has repeatedly accused China, North Korea's largest trading partner, of not taking enough of an initiative to contain the threat of a nuclear Pyongyang.

Before meeting with Chinese President Xi at the G20 summit last weekend, US President Trump lamented Beijing's growing trade with North Korea on a Twitter post that read, "Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us—but we had to give it a try!"

Following the meeting, UN representative Nikki Haley threatened China with economic consequences if its government continued to profit off of trade with North Korea. On Sunday, Haley said, "I think there are a lot of options on the table when it comes to dealing with China. The ball is in their court.

Data released in April showed that China's trade with North Korea grew 37.4 percent year on year in the first quarter, in spite of a ban on coal imports China announced in February.

However, Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to the US, said in a speech to a Washington-based think tank on Monday that reports of trade growth between his country and North Korea, in spite of international efforts to press Pyongyang to give up its nuclear and missile programs, give "a distorted picture".

"This is a distorted picture," Cui said, adding that bilateral trade declined in 2015 and 2016, and by 41 percent in April and 32 percent in May as a result of the coal import ban.

At the same time, Cui stressed that UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea did not constitute an embargo. "Normal trade ... is not banned by these sanctions," he said.

The Chinese embassy released a copy of Cui's speech, originally delivered in an off-the-record setting, on Tuesday.

Cui said that China backed further UN action against North Korea for violations of UN resolutions such as nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Additionally, Beijing has complained about Washington putting unilateral sanctions on Chinese companies and individuals for their dealings with North Korea.

'Suspension for suspension'

While China has been angered by North Korea's repeated nuclear and missile tests, it also blames the US and South Korea for worsening tension with their military exercises.

China has been upset with the US deployment of an advanced anti-missile system in South Korea too, which it says threatens its own security and will do nothing to ease tensions.

Cui repeated a call for Washington to back a Chinese "suspension for suspension" proposal under which North Korea would freeze weapons testing in return for suspension of US-South Korean military exercises.

Washington says that the exercises are needed to maintain defenses against North Korea.

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