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Diplomacy, Warnings Mark Kerry's Visit To Korean Peninsula


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon. Secretary of State John Kerry's in China as the world waits to see whether North Korea will test-fire a missile. Secretary Kerry hopes that Chinese leaders will put pressure on their traditional ally, the North Koreans. Before arriving he said there's no group of leaders on the face of the planet with more capacity to make a difference than the Chinese.

Our Beijing correspondent, Louisa Lim, as been following Secretary Kerry's meeting with Chinese leaders. Louisa, thanks for being with us.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And how does the visit seem to be going?

LIM: Well, Secretary Kerry's been in meetings all day with Chinese leaders from the president on down, so he's certainly got a lot of face time with the people that matter. I mean, this trip has been planned for a while, but its timing coming right now does make it extremely topical and Secretary Kerry made a point of emphasizing this in all his meetings.

This is what he told the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: Mr. President, this is obviously a critical time with some very challenging issues; issues on the Korean Peninsula, the challenge of Iran and nuclear weapons, Syria, the Middle East and the economies around the world that are in need of a boost. So I think that we're meeting at a very, very key time.

LIM: So the Chinese president agreed with him and interestingly that meeting with the president ran over by quite a lot and afterward Kerry said it couldn't have been more constructive and more forward-leaning. He didn't say how. It's not clear at this stage whether he's managed to extract any kind of promise from the Chinese to lean on the North Koreans even more.

I mean, Kerry said he wants China to put what he said more teeth into their North Korean policy. He wants to see them stop the money trail into North Korea and at the moment we don't know whether they've promised to do this.

SIMON: So there are no visible signs yet that the Chinese might be willing to reign in their old ally, are there?

LIM: No, and that's really the big question. I mean, certainly there've been some observers, some former US officials, like the former Korea envoy Kurt Campbell, who says that China is beginning to shift its North Korea policy. And even in China there have been calls for some people in the foreign policy community urging China to ditch its old ally. But it's not at all a given that China will change its policy. I mean, China's top priority is stability and it wants the status quo. It wants North Korea as a buffer state between it and South Korea, so it might not be willing to do anything that might destabilize North Korea.

SIMON: Of course, Louisa, the Chinese press often reflects the government. Anything you've been able to read, see or hear in the press that's interesting?

LIM: Yes, the Chinese press is very interesting. It's taken quite a different turn from what we've been hearing in the meetings, which has all been very upbeat, focusing on the future and cooperation on the way forward. But the state-run media has been quite aggressive and the new state-run news agency, Xinhua, just put out an editorial where it blamed Washington, as well as Pyongyang for upping the tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

It said that moves by Washington to send more fighters and bombers and missile defense ships were a dramatic display of preemptive power and it blamed the U.S. pivot to Asia for breeding mistrust and misunderstanding, so that's really quite a different tone.

SIMON: Well, follow up on that for us a little bit. How is what's called the pivot to Asia affecting relations between the U.S. and the Chinese now?

LIM: Oh, it has had a very big effect. I mean, there's been definite tension in the past year. China feels that the pivot to Asia is aimed at China and has been very unhappy about the way that it's played out. And interestingly, in today's newspapers, a lot of that has been focused on blaming Hillary Clinton. There's a lot of criticism of her in today's press.

So, the appointment of John Kerry has been very much welcomed. He's seen as a more moderate voice, a gentler voice, and both sides are clearly hoping that with the second term and a new Chinese leadership, they might be able to start over. I mean, the big question is whether divergence of opinion on North Korea might ruin the hope that they could be able to start over.

SIMON: NPR's Louisa Lin in Beijing. Thanks so much for being with us.

LIM: Thanks, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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