Washington is pushing for a strong United Nations response to the North’s latest atomic blast — which Pyongyang said was a miniaturised hydrogen bomb, a claim largely dismissed by experts — with enhanced sanctions.
But China, North Korea’s chief diplomatic protector and economic benefactor, is reluctant, despite the pair’s ties becoming strained in recent years as Beijing’s patience wears thin with its neighbour’s ambitions for nuclear weapons.
The two powers — both permanent members of the UN Security Council — had agreed to mount an “accelerated effort” to try to resolve their differences on a new resolution, Kerry told a joint press conference with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.
But he acknowledged that they had not agreed on the “parameters of exactly what it would do or say”.
“The United States will do what is necessary to protect the people of our country and our friends and allies in the world,” Kerry added.
Wang said that China also backed a new Security Council motion, but added that it “should not provoke new tension in the situation”.
Beijing’s ties with Pyongyang were forged in the blood of the Korean War and analysts say its leverage is mitigated by its overriding fear of a North Korean collapse and the prospect of a reunified, US-allied Korea directly on its border.
China has a “particular ability… to be able to help us significantly to resolve this threat”, Kerry said, noting that as the North’s main provider of trade and aid it could apply pressure through “movements of ships” and “various resource exchanges”.
Wang said he rejected “all groundless speculation or distortion of China’s position”, re-iterating that Beijing was committed to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
Kerry later met with President Xi Jinping, with the Chinese leader saying: “Generally speaking when China and the United States work together we can make good things happen”.
China regularly calls for calm in the region, and for the resumption of the long-stalled six-party talks, which bring together the two Koreas, China, the United States, Russia and Japan.
“The goal is to take the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula back to the right track of negotiation”, Wang said.
“Sanctions are not an end in themselves.”