China hits back at criticism over North Korea

BEIJING/ SEOUL Tue Dec 7, 2010 5:43pm EST

1 of 11. South Korean marines look out from a truck on Yeonpyeong Island, near the western maritime border between the two Koreas December 6, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Kim Hyun-tae/Yonhap

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BEIJING/ SEOUL (Reuters) - China hit back at the United States and its Asian allies on Tuesday for their refusal to talk to North Korea, saying dialogue was the only way to calm escalating tension on the divided Korean peninsula.

China took a more belligerent tone a day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted her South Korean and Japanese counterparts in Washington, calling a report that it was shielding Pyongyang's nuclear program an "irresponsible accusation."

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg will lead a U.S. delegation to China in the next week to try to persuade Beijing to put more pressure on Pyongyang despite Chinese fears that this may destabilize North Korea, a U.S. official said.

Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have been lukewarm toward Beijing's proposal for emergency talks between the six regional powers, worried that they could be seen as rewarding Pyongyang for its deadly attack on a South Korean island two weeks ago.

They want China to bring its ally North Korea to heel and hope that through their joint calls Beijing -- which has traditionally resisted outside pressure on its policies -- may be persuaded to act.

"The responsibility of maintaining peace and stability in Northeast Asia should be shouldered by all parties in the region," China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a news conference.

"All parties are stakeholders. We call on the parties to positively respond to our proposals to resolve the conflict through dialogue and negotiation."

"We need a clear indication from North Korea that it understands that this pattern of provoking and then hoping that people will reward it to stop the provocations is not one that we are going to sanction," said Steinberg, Clinton's principal deputy.

China, the host of stalled six-party talks with North Korea, has been trying to take a neutral line in the dispute. It was not invited to Monday's trilateral meeting in Washington which put the onus on Beijing to take action.

NUCLEAR TALKS

Clinton said she was open to resuming talks on the North's nuclear ambitions -- the six-party talks include the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States -- but Pyongyang must first take steps to end its belligerence and keep its 2005 commitment to abandon its nuclear programs.

"I think the fact that it took (Chinese President) Hu (Jintao) and Obama 13 days even to talk about the attack shows what little chance there is of any real agreement," said Brian Myers, an expert on the North's ideology at Dongseo University.

"I agree with the South Korean consensus that the Chinese are simply trying to look like they're doing something for peace, without having to offend the North."

Analysts say Pyongyang will likely carry out more provocations following last month's attack and its latest revelations of nuclear advances for two reasons: to cement a father-to-son leadership transition and to win concessions at any international talks.

"The bottom line: North Korea isn't going to change is behavior any time soon, and the United States, South Korea and the world will have to live with this reality," said Andrew Scobell, a North Korea expert at the U.S. Army War College.

Analysts said China is reluctant to lean too hard on the North, which is undergoing a leadership transition, for fear of a collapse that could spark an exodus of refugees and allow U.S. troops in South Korea right up to the Chinese border.

"China is in a deepening dilemma: how to struggle with the balance between maintaining ties with Pyongyang and maintaining cooperation with Washington," said Zhu Feng, professor of international relations at Peking University.

"Maybe Beijing may be more motivated now to wake up to a new reality."

LIMITS TO POWER

But the United States also faces limits to the pressure it can apply on China. The two countries are enmeshed in a complicated economic relationship, with Washington looking to Beijing to help pull the global economy out of its slump.

"We hope that in increasing domestic consumption, China can become a catalyst for growth," Steinberg said, noting that better balanced U.S.-China economic ties would benefit both countries.

Senator John Kerry, the powerful Democrat who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said many in Washington were looking carefully at how Beijing handles both the North Korea issue and persistent tensions over its currency.

"This next year will define a lot of the next 10 years of our relationship with China," Kerry told a Washington think-tank audience.

Analysts say Beijing's relationship with Pyongyang provides a valuable communication bridge, but they consider China's influence over the North's as limited.

"China is not in control of North Korea. Most emphatically, it is not. It cannot do much, even if it wishes," said Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul.

As South Korea staged live-fire drills around the country, Obama sent his top military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, to Seoul.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said he wants to turn the island that was attacked last month, as well as four others nearby, into "military fortresses" and called for improved living conditions to encourage civilians to return.

His comments came amid worries that many of the residents of Yeonpyeong and the other islands west of North Korea will not return as the North increasingly resorts to violence to reassert its claim over the area.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Andrew Quinn and Jeff Mason in Washington; and Michael Martina and Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing; Editing by David Storey and Christopher Wilson)

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