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Chinese Envoy Reaches Out to North Korea

The visit to Pyongyang, the highest-level talks between the nations since the Oct. 9 nuclear test, comes on the eve of Rice's trip to Beijing.

October 20, 2006|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — A senior Chinese envoy visited North Korea on Thursday in a bid to persuade the isolated country to ease security tensions that have gripped the Korean peninsula.

The trip by State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan was the highest-level contact between the two nations since the Pyongyang government's Oct. 9 nuclear test.

Tang is expected to confer with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Beijing after her arrival here today following visits to Tokyo and Seoul.

Rice has sought to minimize differences in an attempt to reach a consensus with North Korea's neighbors about how to handle the crisis and carry out sanctions imposed last week by the United Nations Security Council. She travels to Russia on Saturday.

In comments made after meeting with Japanese and South Korean officials, Rice appeared to soften the Bush administration's line, emphasizing negotiation. She cited the importance of six-nation talks and said reports on U.S. plans to board North Korean vessels at sea were exaggerated.

China represents the most important stop on Rice's four-nation visit. Beijing supplies most of North Korea's fuel and nearly half of its food.

But the world's most populous nation has balked at squeezing its mercurial neighbor too hard, possibly fearing a destabilizing influx of refugees over their 880-mile border.

China has signaled its displeasure to North Korea in other ways. It started building a barbed-wire fence along the border, and began opening truck trailers traveling from North Korea, although it did not closely examine the contents.

Officials with four Chinese banks also stopped handling financial transfers in and out of the impoverished nation, the Wall Street Journal Asia reported on its website Thursday.

The Chinese government offered few details of the Tang visit, in keeping with its tendency to deliver tough messages in private.

The Foreign Ministry said only that Tang held in-depth discussions with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and delivered a message and gift from Chinese President Hu Jintao.

"This is a very significant visit against the backdrop of major changes on the Korean peninsula," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said at a regular news briefing. "We hope China's diplomatic efforts ... will bear fruit."

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington that Tang strongly advised North Korea not to conduct another nuclear test and to halt its "negative behavior."

China and South Korea last week signed on to U.N. restrictions on weapons and luxury goods that were far weaker than Washington had wanted. Large gaps remain between the Bush administration's preference for robust enforcement and the softer approach favored by North Korea's closest neighbors.

In particular, Beijing and Seoul oppose any inspection of vessels entering or leaving North Korea, which they think will inflame tensions.

"North Korea is a barefoot person," said Xu Wenji, professor of North Korean studies at China's Jilin University near the North Korean border. "Barefoot people aren't afraid of those with shoes. They have no fear of threats or death."

Seoul has balked at halting joint economic projects with North Korea that provide Pyongyang with millions of dollars annually.

The "CBS Evening News," quoting U.S. intelligence sources, reported Thursday that the United States was monitoring a North Korean vessel suspected of carrying military equipment banned under the U.N. sanctions.

Aware that U.S. options are limited without the support of nations near North Korea, Rice underscored a U.S. preference for consensus over confrontation, even as she reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defend Japan and South Korea and send Pyongyang a strong message.

"I did not come to South Korea, nor will I go anyplace else, to try to dictate to governments what they ought to do" in enforcing the U.N. mandate, Rice said Thursday at a news conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon.

"I want to emphasize again: The United States has no desire to do anything to escalate this situation."

mark.magnier@latimes.com

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