China urges US ‘flexibility’ with North Korea amid Washington anger at UN ‘silence’

After refusing to sign a statement condemning North Korea’s latest missile tests, China called for US to create ‘attractive and practical’ solutions

People in Seoul watch coverage of a North Korean missile launch in January

China’s ambassador to the UN has called on the United States to be more flexible in its dealings with North Korea, as Beijing joined others in refusing to sign a US-drafted security council joint statement condemning Pyongyang’s missile launches.

Kim Jong-un’s regime conducted an unprecedented seven weapons tests in January, including launching its most powerful missile since 2017 as it hinted it could restart long-range and nuclear testing.

Washington had proposed a statement decrying those launches, but China and Russia, along with other nations, refused to sign on to it, prompting the US to say the council’s “ongoing silence” would embolden North Korea to further defy the international community.

Before a closed-door meeting convened at Washington’s request on Friday, China’s ambassador to the UN, Zhang Jun, said the key to easing tensions with North Korea was in the hands of the US.

“If they do want to see some new breakthrough, they should show more sincerity and flexibility,” Zhang said.

“They should come up with more attractive and more practical, more flexible approaches, policies and actions and accommodating the concerns of the DPRK,” Zhang told reporters, using the initials of the North’s official name.

The Chinese official noted that as a result of former US president Donald Trump’s policy on North Korea, Pyongyang had suspended nuclear tests and international ballistic missile launches.

However, in recent months, Zhang lamented, “we have seen a vicious circle of confrontation, condemnation, sanctions”.

China and Russia have been blocking council action on North Korea, and last year proposed a resolution that would ease sanctions on Pyongyang on humanitarian grounds, but the draft has not been put to a vote due to lack of support.

“At least we are doing something to facilitate further improvement and avoiding the escalation of the tension,” Zhang said.

After the meeting, the US envoy to the world body, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said the Chinese-Russian proposal to ease sanctions would effectively reward North Korea for what she called “bad behaviour”.

“There’s no reason for this council to reward them for nine tests in one month and almost as many in the previous years,” she told reporters.

“To spend millions of dollars on military tests when your people are starving indicates that this country does not care about its own people.”

Asked about Zhang’s call for increased US action and whether Joe Biden should get directly involved in diplomacy, Thomas-Greenfield reiterated that the US was willing to meet with North Korea without preconditions.

“But,” she added, “before we can commit our president to meeting, we need to have a better sense of what there is to achieve. I can’t comment on what the Trump administration achieved. We had ballistic missiles testing throughout the past four years. It never stopped him. So we have to keep up the pressure.”

She said that so far “we’ve not been able to bring them to the diplomatic table for any discussions whatsoever”.

Friday’s meeting on North Korea was the third in the space of a month.

In the last one on 20 January, eight council members – Albania, Brazil, Britain, France, Ireland, Norway, the United Arab Emirates and the United States – along with Japan released a joint statement condemning the North’s tests.

The other seven members – China, Gabon, Ghana, India, Kenya, Mexico and Russia – refused to sign.

On Friday, those same eight countries and Japan, again led by Washington, issued a new statement reiterating a call for North Korea to “cease its destabilising actions and return to dialogue.”

“We continue to urge the DPRK to respond positively to the offers from the United States and others to meet without preconditions,” it said.

The statement also called out the other members of the security council, saying the “cost of the council’s ongoing silence is too high”.

“It will embolden the DPRK to further defy the international community; to normalise its violations of security council resolutions; to further destabilise the region; and to continue to threaten international peace and security,” it said.

North Korea on Friday sent “warm congratulations” to its Chinese ally for the Beijing Olympics, a message that experts consider a likely signal for a halt to missile firing during the sporting event.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken is scheduled to hold trilateral talks in Hawaii on 12 February with South Korea and Japan on North Korea.

Agence France-Presse and Associated Press contributed to this report

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