Beijing has reiterated its support for Pyongyang a day after the US and Chinese special envoys on North Korea spoke for the first time since President Joe Biden took office.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Wednesday that China would push for closer cooperation with North Korea.
Zhao also cited a telephone conversation between Liu Xiaoming, China’s special representative on the Korean peninsula, and his US counterpart Sung Kim, adding that Beijing would continue to play its part in securing a peaceful settlement of the North Korean nuclear issue.
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According to observers, Beijing sees the issue as an important source of leverage in dealing with the Biden administration and hopes that if it helps to break the deadlock it may help ease its spiraling tensions with the US.
Liu largely echoed comments by Foreign Minister Wang Yi last week in which he called for the resumption of dialogue and consultation and “phased and synchronised” actions by both the US and North Korea.
He also urged Washington to address Pyongyang’s “legitimate and reasonable concerns”, in another indication of Beijing’s continued support for the North.
According to the Chinese statement, the US said it was committed to resolving the issue through diplomatic means and Washington hopes to resume dialogue and contact with North Korea as soon as possible.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price confirmed the call had taken place but declined to offer further details. Price said Washington would work with South Korea and Japan adding that China “has a role to play as well and obviously has influence with the regime”.
The Biden administration was “awaiting a constructive reply” from North Korea, Price added.
Their conversation followed Kim’s trip to Seoul last month where he held talks with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea.
Zhang Liangui, a North Korea specialist at the Central Party School in Beijing, said the exchanges between Beijing and Washington came at a critical moment for both US-China relations and North Korea, which is facing economic hardship, food shortages and a pandemic crisis.
Underlining its importance in the deeply troubled US-China relationship, the need for cooperation on the denuclearisation issue was a rare highlight in a phone conversation between Yang Jiechi, China’s foreign policy chief, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pledged last month to prepare for both “dialogue and confrontation” with the Biden administration, and “especially to get fully prepared for confrontation”.
“China and the US share common interests and used to work closely together on North Korea’s nuclear issue,” said Zhang. “It is of vital importance for the two rival powers to seek cooperation wherever possible in a bid to ease tensions and improve their relation.”
In a speech at Tsinghua University on Saturday, Wang yet again called for an easing of UN sanctions against North Korea. He said the US should “reconsider its incessant military threats and pressure” on Pyongyang, while the United Nations should move to help North Korea “improve its economy and people‘s livelihoods”.
The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation warned on Wednesday that Pyongyang was facing a “harsh lean period” from August through October, with a food shortage of around 860,000 tonnes this year.
The country’s leader has also made the rare admission that the food situation was getting “tense” and warned the people to prepare for the “worst-ever situation”.
Despite limited public information, Zhang said the situation was getting worse in North Korea and “it was highly unlikely to be improved any time soon” due to the UN sanctions and Pyongyang’s decision to close its borders since early 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Additional reporting by Catherine Wong
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