US warning to China sends ripples to Koreas

South agrees to hold defence talks with North Korea

Despite the bonhomie, US President Barack Obama did some plain-speaking to Chinese President Hu Jintao. AFP

Obama’s warning, first made in a phone call to Hu last month and repeated over a private dinner at the White House on Tuesday, persuaded China to take a harder line towards North Korea, the official said, which opened the door to a resumption of dialogue between North and South Korea.

On Thursday, the South Korea government said it had agreed to hold defence talks with the North, the first engagement between the Koreas since a deadly North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean island in November seemed to push the peninsula to the brink of war.

China’s change of heart is far from complete: Beijing has still not condemned North Korea for torpedoing a South Korean warship.

During Hu’s visit, China for the first time joined the US in publicly expressing concern over a new North Korean uranium-enrichment plant. But there were no immediate signs that it planned to punish the North for its defiance.

Still, Obama’s pressure, reinforced by cabinet members like Defence Secretary Robert M Gates, moved China into much closer alignment with the US in dealing with North Korea.
Continuing his US tour, Hu travelled from the White House to the chillier end of Pennsylvania Avenue on Thursday to meet with lawmakers waiting to take him to task over issues like human rights and trade policy. Hu later met business leaders. North Korea dominated the intimate dinner that Obama held for Hu on Tuesday, the official said. Obama focused on the North’s recently disclosed uranium-enrichment plant, saying that it was one part of a three-pronged threat to the US that included the North’s production of plutonium bombs and development of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Without help from China, which is the major supporter of the North Korean government, Obama told Hu that the US would have to take long-term measures, like redeploying its forces, changing its defence posture or beefing up military exercises in Northeast Asia, according to the administration official.

“It was not meant to suggest pre-emption, but we were projecting that a North Korea that becomes a national security threat is going to get a response,” said the official. “That was attention-getting for the Chinese.”

Apology

The move to resume talks has required concessions from all sides. South Korea has had to swallow its reluctance to engage the North without an apology for its recent attacks. And the US has had to abandon its resistance to resuming multiparty negotiations with North Korea, something Beijing has pushed and Washington has resisted as being a reward for the North’s aggression.

The North proposed the defence talks, as well as a meeting between the countries’ defence ministers, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry.

The ministry said the South was willing to hold higher-level talks, but only if the North took responsibility for its actions. South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, has been reluctant to engage at all, saying the North was following an old strategy of provoking its neighbour and then requesting talks and economic aid. The US has gently nudged South Korea to consider renewing contacts with the North.

While the talks are a step forward, analysts cautioned that the preconditions set for higher-level negotiations might prevent any genuine progress.

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