China warns situation with North Korea at ‘critical point’

By Michelle Nichols and Lesley Wroughton | UNITED NATIONS

China warned on Friday that the situation with North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs is at a “critical point” and said dialogue and negotiations are the only “practical” way to end tensions.

Speaking at the United Nations before a Security Council meeting on North Korea – to be chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi pledged that Beijing would fully implement all U.N. sanctions on North Korea.

“Due to the recent efforts by the DPRK (North Korea) to accelerate missile and nuclear development, China agrees to the international community to step up efforts of non-proliferation,” Wang told reporters.

“A peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue and negotiations represents the only right choice that is practical and viable,” he said.

Tillerson, in his first visit to the United Nations as secretary of state, will press the 15-member Security Council to further isolate North Korea by swiftly imposing stronger sanctions in the event of further provocations by Pyongyang, including a long-range missile launch or sixth nuclear test.

The ministerial meeting comes after U.S. President Donald Trump told Reuters on Thursday that a “major, major conflict” with North Korea was possible over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

The United States, which is president of the Security Council for April, urged members – in a note outlining Friday’s meeting – to “show their resolve to respond to further provocations with significant new measures.”

Diplomats say further provocations are considered a nuclear test or long-range missile launch.

The Trump administration is focusing its North Korea strategy on tougher economic sanctions, possibly including an oil embargo, a global ban on its airline, intercepting cargo ships and punishing Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang, U.S. officials told Reuters earlier this month.

The United States has been urging China to use its status as North Korea’s only major ally to help rein in Pyongyang.

Washington is also stepping up pressure that began under the Obama administration against Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia, which have diplomatic and financial links to Pyongyang, to downgrade or cut diplomatic ties with North Korea.

TALKS SEQUENCE

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is due to brief the Security Council at Friday’s meeting, which will include foreign ministers from China, Britain and Japan. Tillerson met with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts before the council meeting and will meet Wang afterwards.

China has long promoted dialogue to resolve the “Korean nuclear issue,” and the United States says it is open to talks, but the two countries disagree over the sequence.

“The U.S. require (North Korea) to take some actual action to curtail their nuclear program, which could then be followed by talks, and the Chinese position is talks first, action later,” said a senior U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Since 2006, North Korea has been subject to U.N. sanctions aimed at impeding the development of its nuclear and missile programs. The council has strengthened sanctions following each of North Korea’s five nuclear tests.

Traditionally the United States and China have negotiated new sanctions before involving remaining council members. It took the council three months to act after the last nuclear test, in September, and diplomats said Washington appears to be laying the groundwork with China for faster negotiations next time.

(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Frances Kerry)

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