Germany tries to defuse N.Korea tensions, praises China

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany on Wednesday vowed to do all it could to defuse tensions between the United States and North Korea, lauding China’s role in pressuring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to delay plans to fire missiles towards the U.S. territory of Guam.

But Berlin played down the idea that Germany could be a significant mediator between Pyongyang and Washington, after hosting talks between the two a decade ago.

“There is no military solution for this conflict, it must be worked out via negotiations,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a YouTube interview, criticizing what she called escalating rhetoric by “all sides”.

“We can avoid a catastrophe and we must do everything possible to do that. I am doing everything I can at least.”

Fears of a military confrontation between the United States and North Korean flared last week after a series of increasingly sharp verbal salvos between U.S. President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader.

Germany has found itself thrust into a bigger global role in recent years, taking the lead in mediating the Ukraine crisis and ratcheting up its military role in places like Mali and in the fight against Islamic State.

Trump’s “America First” policies and the looming exit of Britain from the European Union have put even more pressure on Berlin to play an active diplomatic role.

But Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and other officials said it was premature to consider talks.

“We’re not at the negotiating stage. We’re not yet in any kind of a mediating role,” he told reporters, when asked if Berlin could again host talks between the United States and North Korea.

Both Merkel and Gabriel said they were pleased with China’s efforts to ease the crisis. Gabriel has spoken with his counterparts in China, the United States and South Korea in recent days, and said these talks would continue.

“Since yesterday we are a bit more optimistic,” Gabriel said.

“I think that above all Chinese pressure contributed to the statements from North Korea about definitely putting aside these ideas of firing a missile at Guam,” he said. “It seems that the pressure put on by China worked.”

Alexandra Sakaki, an expert on Korea at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), described Germany and Europe as “outsiders” in the conflict.

But historical ties between the former communist East Germany and Pyongyang could give Berlin a special role.

“Germany has an embassy in Pyongyang and there is a North Korean embassy in Berlin. So if it does come to talks, Berlin would be a possible location,” she said.

Gabriel’s spokesman Martin Schaefer said the six-party format used in the Iran nuclear talks - Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States - might some day prove useful in tackling the North Korea conflict.

Additional reporting by Paul Carrel, Madeline Chambers and Noah Barkin; Writing by Andrea Shalal and Michelle Martin; Editing by Noah Barkin and Alister Doyle