Breakthrough after U.S. warns China on North Korea

SEOUL/WASHINGTON Fri Jan 21, 2011 6:31pm EST

A North Korean soldier on the northern side of the truce village of Panmunjom looks south in the demilitarised zone that separates North Korea from South Korea in Paju, north of Seoul January 19, 2011. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

A North Korean soldier on the northern side of the truce village of Panmunjom looks south in the demilitarised zone that separates North Korea from South Korea in Paju, north of Seoul January 19, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Lee Jae-Won

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SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States warned China it would redeploy forces in Asia if Beijing failed to rein in North Korea, an Obama administration official said on Friday, as Pyongyang bowed to Seoul's demands for crisis talks.

President Barack Obama's warning had persuaded China -- the North's main diplomatic and economic backer -- to take a harder line toward Pyongyang, and opened the door to a resumption of inter-Korean talks, possibly next month, the official said, confirming a report in The New York Times.

North Korea accepted the South's conditions for talks on Thursday, marking a major breakthrough in the crisis on the peninsula. Such dialogue could clear the way for the resumption of the six-party aid-for-disarmament talks.

Obama warned his Chinese counterpart, President Hu Jintao, that if Beijing did not step up pressure on North Korea, Washington would redeploy its forces in Asia to protect itself from a potential North Korean strike on U.S. soil.

The Obama administration official declined to give more specific details about any possible redeployments. China was angered by last year's large-scale U.S.-South Korean military drills in the Yellow Sea, seen as a major projection of U.S. power off its coasts.

The drills included participation of a nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier and were meant to be a show of force that would deter the North from any future provocations.

Obama first made the warning in a telephone call to Hu last month, and repeated it over a private dinner at the White House on Tuesday, the U.S. administration official said.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs first hinted at the stepped-up pressure at a news briefing on Thursday, when he told reporters that Obama's meeting with Hu on Wednesday had helped shift entrenched attitudes on the Korean peninsula.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week that Pyongyang was becoming a direct threat to the United States and could develop intercontinental ballistic missiles within five years.

Wang Dong of Peking University's School of International Studies said Washington's reported warning to Beijing was a slap in the face for the Chinese leader, who has urged the two Koreas to resolve their differences through dialogue.

"Playing tough like this, it might just backfire, I'm afraid," Wang said. "If this article represents the real thinking by American leaders, the danger of war on the peninsula can never be dismissed."

"China has its own strategy in trying to influence North Korea. It wants to find the least costly path to solve this crisis."

The proposed talks would be the first contact between the two Koreas since a deadly artillery attack on the South in November sharply raised tensions on the divided peninsula.

Pyongyang bowed to Seoul's demands that talks specifically address that attack and the sinking of a South Korean warship last March, but made no mention of talks on denuclearization -- the central component of six-party meetings.

Washington and Tokyo have cautiously welcomed the Korean talks, but there has been no comment from Beijing.

Analysts cautioned against reading too much into the talks, saying they marked progress but that Seoul's demands for an apology for the attacks could prove difficult for Pyongyang to accept.

"There must be a paradigm shift from both North and South Korea for the sake of stability in the region," said Ahn Yinhay of Korea University. "Given the favorable relationship between China and the United States, now is the right time."

NUCLEAR DIPLOMACY

Washington and Beijing have argued that North-South dialogue is a prerequisite to a resumption of six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia. Pyongyang walked out of the six-party talks, under which it previously agreed to abandon its nuclear programs, and pronounced them dead in 2009.

Obama and Hu have jointly expressed concern about North Korea's expanding nuclear program and the South's Unification Ministry said it was formulating a proposal for separate nuclear talks with the North.

"I think there will be opportunities to discuss the specific measures aimed toward denuclearization," the South's envoy for six-party talks, Wi Sung-lac, told YTN radio.

"We need to confirm that North Korea is sincere about denuclearization, and talks are needed for this reason. Through such talks we will need to see whether the six-party talks could be productive."

The prospect of resuming the six-party talks will set off a new wave of diplomacy, starting with next' week's visit to the region by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg.

The group negotiations have been beset by problems since their start in 2003, but experts say they are the best multilateral forum to engage Pyongyang and control tensions.

The South's Defense Ministry said it would propose a date for the preliminary talks sometime next week, adding they would likely take place in mid-February.

The North's KCNA state news agency on Friday published the letter sent to the South's Defense Ministry. "We are in a firm position to resolve all military issues including those the South wants to propose," it said.

(Additional reporting by Miyoung Kim and Jumin Park in Seoul, Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing, and Patricia Zengerle and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney)