December 20, 2019 / 7:47 AM / a month ago

U.S. envoy meets second senior China diplomat as North Korea tensions rise

BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng met U.S. special envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun on Friday, China’s foreign ministry said, Biegun’s second high-level meeting in Beijing in two days amid growing tension on the Korean peninsula.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. special representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun arrives for a meeting with South Korea's 'special representative for Korean peninsula peace and security affairs' Lee Do-hoon (not pictured) at the foreign ministry in Seoul, South Korea December 16, 2019. Ed Jones/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

North Korea has conducted a series of weapons tests in recent weeks and some experts say the reclusive state may be preparing for an intercontinental ballistic missile test soon.

Such a test would mark a break from the detente reached with the United States last year, dash any hopes of resuming talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes and put the two countries back on a path of confrontation.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, who disclosed the meeting of Le and Biegun during a daily briefing, did not elaborate on what was discussed. He reiterated that China urges the United States and North Korea to resume dialogue and meet each other halfway.

The ministry said in a statement Le and Biegun exchanged views on North Korea but it did not elaborate on specifics.

Biegun’s visit comes days after China and Russia jointly proposed to the U.N. Security Council easing some of the economic sanctions in place against North Korea to “break the deadlock” in its stalled talks with the United States.

China has repeatedly touted the plan as the best option available, arguing that some concessions must be made to North Korea in order to achieve a political resolution.

The United States has said it does not support any easing of sanctions, however, and can veto any proposal put to a vote for the 15-member council.

Biegun arrived in the Chinese capital and met Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui on Thursday. China’s foreign ministry said late on Thursday that the two exchanged views on achieving denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula in stages.

Biegun left Beijing for Washington later on Friday, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.

It is unclear if Biegun had any behind-the-scenes contact with North Korean officials in Beijing, but his overtures and calls for new talks were not publicly answered by North Korea.

He did not speak to reporters in Beijing.

In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he remained hopeful that the United States could restart diplomacy with North Korea.

“We are prepared for whatever,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said during the same briefing, but declined to discuss specific intelligence.

Reporting by Huizhong Wu; Additional reporting by Hyunjoo Jin and Idrees Ali in Washington; Writing by Se Young Lee; Editing by Jacqueline Wong, Robert Birsel and Diane Craft

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