WASHINGTON — China's foreign minister pushed Friday for the restart of international talks on North Korea's nuclear program, saying that Pyongyang is ready to recommit to the goal of denuclearization.
North Korea withdrew from the aid-for-disarmament talks in 2009, and over the past year has made clear it wants to be treated as a nuclear weapons state.
But Foreign Minister Wang Yi told a Washington think tank that the North has recently said it is ready to come back to a 2005 commitment on giving up nuclear weapons, and to an agreement it reached with the United States in February last year on freezing its nuclear programs in exchange for food aid.
That agreement fell through soon after it was hatched when North Korea reneged on it by testing a long-range rocket.
The U.S. remains very skeptical about Pyongyang's intentions. North Korea conducted its third underground nuclear test in February, and in recent weeks there have been signs it is restarting a plutonium reactor that can produce fissile material for bombs. Satellite imagery also suggests it may have expanded its uranium enrichment facility.
Wang met Thursday with Secretary of State John Kerry. Beforehand, Wang said he was confident they could reach "a new, important agreement" on how to relaunch the long-stalled disarmament talks that were originally hosted by Beijing.
China is North Korea's only major ally and remains its main benefactor, but it has struck a more critical tone in the past year. China cooperated with the U.S. in tightening U.N. sanctions against North Korea – formally known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK – in response to the nuclear test. Now, however, it appears much more eager than Washington for negotiations to restart.
Speaking about U.S.-China relations at the Brookings Institution, Wang said that achieving denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is a common goal of the two global powers.
"Now that the DPRK side has reiterated it will come back to the denuclearization goal it is time for the six parties to have serious dialogue to work out how we can achieve that goal," Wang said through an interpreter.
Wang said he is discussing with the U.S. how to set a "reasonable threshold" for the resumption of the talks that would be acceptable to all the parties – that also include Japan, Russia and South Korea.
Washington is adamant that Pyongyang must first take concrete steps to show its sincerity – like the nuclear freeze the U.S. tried to broker last year.
After Thursday's talks with China, there was no sign of a breakthrough.
The U.S. said Kerry had detailed to Wang "several disturbing developments" that indicate North Korea continues to flout its previous commitments to denuclearize.
The U.S., however, has not closed the door to official contact with North Korea.
Washington wanted to send an envoy to Pyongyang last month to request a pardon for a detained American, Kenneth Bae, who is accused of subversion. North Korea withdrew its invitation at the last minute, citing the mobilization of nuclear-capable U.S. bombers during military drills with South Korea.