North Korea in The Spotlight at High-Level U.S.-China Talks

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein)

The U.S. and China began high-level security talks Wednesday focused largely on North Korea, amid outrage in Washington over death of an American college student after his imprisonment in the North.

President Donald Trump has been counting on China to use its economic leverage with the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as American concern grows over the North’s acceleration toward having a nuclear missile that can strike the U.S. mainland.

In meetings at the State Department involving U.S. and Chinese diplomats and defense chiefs, North Korea was to get “top billing,” according to Susan Thornton, the senior U.S. diplomat for East Asia. The U.S. and China are trying to build on “positive momentum” created when Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Florida in April, she said.

The discussions were intended to replace a strategic and economic dialogue held annually under the Obama administration. Those talks rarely produced significant results.

This year’s edition separates out the security aspects. Secretary of State State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis were hosting Chinese foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi and Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of the People’s Liberation Army’s joint staff department.

Thornton said the talks would cover the South China Sea, where Beijing’s island-building and construction of possible military facilities have rattled neighbors and caused tension with Washington; U.S.-Chinese military cooperation to reduce risk of conflict; and efforts to defeat the Islamic State group.

Divisive trade issues will be dealt with at a later date.

Trump has praised Xi for trying to contain North Korea, which counts on China for 90 percent of its trade, but the effort has delivered few results. Trump appeared to acknowledge as much in a tweet Wednesday, a day after the death of U.S. student Otto Warmbier, 22.

“While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!” Trump wrote.

No cause of death has been determined for Warmbier, who was detained for nearly a year-and-a-half in North Korea before being sent home in a coma last week. The University of Virginia student was accused of trying to steal a propaganda banner while visiting with a tour group and was convicted of subversion. His family is blaming North Korea for “awful, torturous mistreatment.”

From Capitol Hill to the White House, pressure is mounting for a tough U.S. response. The Trump administration is considering banning travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea, officials said Tuesday, and Trump said Warmbier’s treatment was a “total disgrace.”

Like past presidents, Trump is finding the U.S. has limited scope for punishing North Korea, particularly over the arrest of U.S. citizens.

A ban on Americans visiting North Korea would only slightly add to the North’s isolation and loss of revenue. The route to inflicting significant economic pain on Kim’s government remains through China.

Thornton said the U.S. would seek “concrete cooperation” with China on getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile programs and return to negotiations. Such talks are a seemingly distant goal because Kim is believed to see his weapons of mass destruction as a guarantee against invasion.

North Korea hasn’t conducted a nuclear test explosion as feared earlier this year — a possible consequence of Chinese pressure. But the North has kept up its rapid pace of missile launches, drawing another U.N. Security Council resolution this month and additional sanctions.

Last week, Tillerson told a Senate hearing that China’s efforts on North Korea had been “uneven.” On Tuesday, Thornton cited Chinese restrictions on imports of North Korean coal as “notable” progress. But she said the U.S. wants more action against blacklisted North Korean companies doing business through China.

Washington has one threat it can use with Beijing: The possibility of “secondary” sanctions that go after Chinese companies doing business in North Korea. Such a move risks fraying relations between the world’s two biggest economies.

Beijing, which wants resumed U.S. negotiations with North Korea, was hoping for “positive outcomes” from Wednesday’s dialogue, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.

The Chinese state-run Global Times warned in an editorial that if Washington imposes sanctions against Chinese enterprises “it will lead to grave friction between China and the U.S.”