The US envoy for North Korea is to travel to East Asia next week on a fresh round of nuclear diplomacy, as Washington looks to nudge a reluctant China to step up pressure on Pyongyang to disarm.
US Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies is to start his trip tomorrow in China, before traveling to South Korea and Japan.
The trip comes as North Korea says it wants to improve its relations with South Korea and has agreed to resume reunions of families separated by the 1950-1953 Korean War.
However, the North is also demanding that the US and South Korea call off annual war drills that begin at the end of next month, which the allies are refusing to do.
Meanwhile, the US wants Pyongyang to release Kenneth Bae, a US citizen detained for more than a year in North Korea and accused of crimes against the state.
Since Davies’ last visit to the region in late November last year, there has been unprecedented turbulence inside North Korea’s ruling family.
Young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has ousted and executed his powerful uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who was a key figure in the North’s relations with its only major ally, China.
Davies’ trip signals Chinese willingness to resume discussions on North Korea that were likely put on pause as Beijing absorbed the impact of Jang’s demise.
In a sign of its reticence, Chinese Envoy on Korean Peninsula Affairs Wu Dawei (武大偉) did not visit Washington as expected after Davies’ last trip to Beijing two months ago; instead China has invited Davies to visit again.
However, the willingness to engage with the US again does not mean Beijing will be ready to step up pressure on its troublesome ally.
The US and China are united in their desire that North Korea denuclearize, and they cooperated in tightening UN sanctions on the North in response to a nuclear test in February last year.
However, they have remained at odds over how to engage the North.
China has been eager for the quick resumption of six-nation talks on the nuclear program that could reward Pyongyang with aid in exchange for disarming.
Pyongyang says it is ready to do so without preconditions, but Washington is skeptical of North Korea’s intentions and is demanding it take preliminary concrete steps to show its sincerity.