China plans nuclear talks with North Korea
China planned weekend talks with North Korea over the nuclear crisis amid U.S. hopes that Beijing would bring new pressure on Pyongyang to rejoin negotiations, official sources said on Wednesday.
North Korea shocked the world last Thursday by declaring it had made nuclear weapons and was suspending participation in the six-way talks on the crisis, which also bring together South Korea, Japan, the United States, China and Russia.
It was a major challenge to Seoul and Washington. Beijing hosted three rounds of negotiations and won praise for its lead role in efforts to disarm North Korea.
U.S. officials, while grateful for Beijing's diplomacy, have increasingly faulted China privately for not exerting its unique influence to force the North back to the negotiating table.
A Tokyo-based diplomatic source said Wang Jiarui, head of the Chinese Communist Party's international liaison department, would visit North Korea from Feb. 19 to 22.
Japanese, South Korean and U.S. officials would meet after that to discuss what steps to take next, the source added.
Japan's Kyodo news agency said that three-way meeting would take place in Seoul from Saturday to Tuesday.
In a sign of intensifying diplomacy, the new top U.S. negotiator on North Korea, Chris Hill, as well as South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Song Min-soon, planned to visit Beijing on Thursday for consultations before Wang's trip.
Hill, also U.S. ambassador to Seoul, "is an activist. This (Beijing visit) is part of an all-out effort to get this negotiating process up and running," a U.S. official said.
After President Bush began his second term in January, U.S. officials expected Pyongyang to agree to a new round of six-party talks. Since the North's statement last week, U.S. officials have sought to play down any sense of rising crisis.
CIA Director Porter Goss, testifying before a U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday, called the North's statement "bluster diplomacy" and another attempt to exploit "nothing to get something."
U.S. ally South Korea, which fears a North Korean collapse and has pursued an engagement policy, appeared to rebuff the idea of increasing pressure on Pyongyang during high-level talks in Washington earlier this week.
The United States would like South Korea to withhold a fertilizer shipment to Pyongyang but Seoul's response has been ambiguous, one U.S. official said.
He said Hill's message to China would be: "We're prepared to talk. Let's get them back to the table. There's no excuse for this delay."
China's new leaders face a tough diplomatic challenge in seeking to persuade an North Korea to return to the table and resolve the crisis, which emerged in 2002.
Diplomatic experts have said persistent refusal by North Korea to return to the talks would prompt the United States and its allies to insist on taking up the matter at the U.N. Security Council, a prelude to possible economic sanctions.
The nuclear standoff began in October 2002 when Washington said North Korea admitted to a secret program to enrich weapons-grade uranium in violation of a 1994 accord. Pyongyang has since insisted it only has a plutonium program.