China has welcomed an offer by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to hold talks with North Korea without pre-conditions. The offer comes amid heightened tensions on the peninsula and as South Korean President Moon Jae-in begins a four-day state visit to China.
Speaking at a regular press briefing Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing welcomes all efforts to ease tensions and promote dialogue.
“China has already proposed "double suspension" proposal and we hope that the United States and North Korea can meet each other halfway and take meaningful steps on dialogue and contact," Lu said.
China’s “double suspension” or “freeze for freeze” proposal is that North Korea halt all ballistic missile and nuclear tests and that the United States and South Korea halt all military exercises.
During a speech at the Atlantic Council-Korea Foundation Forum on Tuesday, Tillerson called on China to continue to ramp up pressure on Pyongyang. He also said that there has to be a “period of quiet” for talks to begin, “or it's going to be very difficult to have productive discussions.”
"We're ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk. And we're ready to have the first meeting without precondition," Tillerson said.
Former U.S. officials told VOA on Tuesday that the offer from Tillerson was unusually candid amid increasing threats from North Korea’s nuclear and missile proliferation. However, it is not clear whether the White House is fully behind the proposal. President Donald Trump has previously told Tillerson that he was wasting his time pursuing dialogue with North Korea.
In China, analysts said the statement from Tillerson ahead of President Moon’s visit will be welcomed by both Beijing and Seoul.
"There's a lot of room for both China and South Korea to collaborate on addressing the nuclear crisis in North Korea. In this regard, Chairman Xi (Jinping) will definitely work with President Moon to build on their consensus and strengthen efforts" for peace talks with the North Korea,” said Lu Chao, a Korea scholar at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences.
President Moon’s visit to China will focus heavily on North Korea and finding ways to re-start dialogue. On Thursday, Moon will meet with Xi, the third meeting between the two leaders since he was elected earlier this year.
He will also meet with South Korean residents in China and attend a business forum. A large entourage of top executives from South Korean companies will be traveling with Moon on his visit.
Moon came to office at a time when relations between South Korea and China had hit a historic low. China angrily opposed Seoul’s deployment of a U.S. based missile defense system, launching tough economic sanctions against South Korea that impacted tourism and trade between the two countries.
In late October, however, the two sides agreed to put their relationship back on track, but some believe the relationship has yet to fully thaw.China is likely to bring up the issue during the visit as well.
When the two countries agreed to put their relationship back on track, South Korea offered up three "no's" to ease Beijing’s security concerns. Those three commitments were to not make any additional deployments of THAAD, not participate in a regional missile defense network, and to not join an alliance with Japan and the United States.
Moon’s visit to China comes at a time of heightened tension on the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang recently tested what is believed to be its largest and most powerful ballistic missile, an ICBM experts estimate is capable of reaching as far as the east coast of the United States.
In China, there have been increased signs that authorities are making preparations for the possibility of conflict on the peninsula.
Last week, a state-run newspaper in China’s northeastern city of Jilin, not far from the border with North Korea, published a page of common sense advice about how to survive a nuclear attack.
There have also been reports that refugee camps are being built along China’s border with North Korea. Something Tillerson appeared to confirm in his remarks Tuesday.
“China is taking steps to prepare for such an eventuality. I think it is something that they can manage. I don’t think the threat is as significant as perhaps others view it. I don’t want to be dismissive of it, but it’s not an unmanageable situation,” he said. “And they already are taking preparatory actions for such an event.”
Nike Ching in Washington and Joyce Huang contributed to this report.