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China's envoy says US should stop threats over North Korea, as Kim Jong-un aims for military 'equilibrium'

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects a missile launch. Photo: Getty Images

The US must stop threatening North Korea's leader if a peaceful solution to the nuclear crisis is to be found, China's ambassador to Washington has said, as Kim Jong-un reiterated his country's aim to reach military "equilibrium" with the US.

Cui Tiankai told reporters in Washington on Friday, "They (the US) should refrain from issuing more threats. They should do more to find effective ways to resume dialogue and negotiation."

"Honestly, I think the US should be doing … much more than now, so that there's real effective international cooperation on this issue."

North Korea's state news agency, KCNA on Saturday quoted Kim as saying, "Our final goal is to establish the equilibrium of real force with the US and make the US rulers dare not talk about military option."

The US warned on Friday it could revert to military options if the latest sanctions fail to curb North Korean missile and nuclear tests, after Pyongyang fired a missile over Japan for the second time in two weeks.

US national security advisor HR McMaster said: "We have been kicking the can down the road and we're out of road. For those who have been commenting about the lack of a military option – there is a military option. Now, it's not what we prefer to do, so what we have to do is call on all nations to do everything we can to address this global problem, short of war."

Earlier, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged Russia and China to "indicate their intolerance for these reckless missile launches by taking direct actions of their own."

The Chinese ambassador was speaking after Pyongyang fired a missile over Japan for the second time Friday morning in two weeks a move the UN security council said it "strongly condemned".

Speaking in Beijing, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said China opposed the launch but also urged the US to change its tactics towards Pyongyang. "China is not to blame for the escalation of tensions. China does not hold the key to resolving the Korean peninsula nuclear issue, either. Those who tied the knots are responsible for untying (them)."

China rebuffed US demands to cut off oil exports to North Korea as a way to dissuade Kim's regime from pursuing nuclear weapons, saying instead it was American leaders who needed to tone down their rhetoric and come to the negotiating table.

China will implement all UN Security Council resolutions, "no more, no less," Cui said on Friday when asked if China would cut oil shipments. Any further steps would need to be worked out with the agreement of the entire UN Security Council, he said.

Tillerson demanded on Thursday that China use its role as the main exporter of oil to North Korea to force Kim to abandon his nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

North Korea top agenda for anticipated Trump-Xi summit

The North Korea issue is likely to take center stage during US President Donald Trump's anticipated state visit to China in November.

For months Trump has been struggling to convince Beijing to do more to help him rein in Kim's regime, using a mixture of public flattery and Twitter diplomacy in his bid to win over Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"North Korea is a rogue nation which has become a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success," Trump tweeted on September 3 after Pyongyang's sixth nuclear test.

"It is possible that China is using concessions to assure a successful summit with Trump in Beijing," said Zhang Baohui, director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Hong Kong's Lingnan University.

This week, top diplomats of the two countries—China's state councilor Yang Jiechi and US Secretary of State Tillerson—met with each other in Washington to help ensure Trump's visit will "achieve positive results," state news agency Xinhua said.

Zhao Tong, a North Korea expert at Beijing's Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, said it was too early to tell how the issue might affect Trump's visit. "Many things can happen between now and then. New developments can emerge that seriously change the calculations," he said.

However, Zhao said it was almost certain Kim would continue his campaign in the lead-up to Trump's arrival. "We are likely to see more tests, maybe including another nuclear tests … It won't take long before the North Koreans really feel the pain (from the recent UN sanctions). So I think the North Korean strategy is to use this very short time before they face real problems domestically, to completely conclude their nuclear and missile programs, to achieve all of the key technologies … So they are likely accelerate and to conduct the tests that are most important for them and then quickly soften their position and come to diplomacy."

More hawkish voices

Many are noting that in China's academic community, hawkish voices on North Korea are gradually taking the center stage, as Pyongyang has conducted more ambitious missile and nuclear tests, raising concerns in Beijing of radioactive fallout in its northern areas.

"I think what North Korea has done makes the doves increasingly hard to rationalize their thesis," Cheng Xiaohe, a professor of the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing, told Quartz.

Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Chinese Communist party's Central Party School, the top cadre-training institution, has urged the need for a stronger stance on North Korea. "The sanctions imposed on North Korea are still lacking strength and global scale," he said in an interview with the Financial Times last week.

Zhang's remarks echo his colleagues' frustration. "As momentum once again builds in Beijing to reassess its relationship with North Korea, it is time for China to make a significant shift in its policy, once and for all," wrote Zhu Feng, director of the Institute of International Studies at Nanjing University, in the July edition of the US journal Foreign Affairs. Zhu called on China to put more economic sanctions on North Korea, including banning Chinese banks from doing business with Pyongyang's front companies.

Unlike in many other countries, the interplay between Communist Party-run China's ruling elite and its academic circles, is more limited, but not nonexistent.

China's North Korea policy comes directly from Xi, said Lingnan University's Zhang, and the latest UN sanctions and the reported bank restrictions show that "Xi has lost patience."

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