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US envoy on NKorea traveling to China next week

January 24, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. envoy for North Korea is traveling 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.

The envoy, Glyn Davies, will start his trip Monday in China, before traveling to South Korea and Japan. It 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 1950-53 Korean War.

But the North is also demanding that the U.S. and South Korea call off annual war drills that begin at the end of February, which the allies are refusing to do. The U.S., meanwhile, wants Pyongyang to release Kenneth Bae, an American 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, there’s been unprecedented turbulence inside North Korea’s ruling family. Young 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, China’s envoy on Korean peninsula affairs, Wu Dawei, did not visit Washington as expected after Davies’ last trip to Beijing two months ago; instead China has invited Davies to visit again.

But the willingness to engage with the U.S. again doesn’t mean Beijing will be ready to step up pressure on its troublesome ally. The U.S. and China are united in their desire that North Korea denuclearize, and they cooperated in tightening U.N. sanctions on the North in response to a nuclear test last February. But they’ve 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.

The North’s latest charm offensive toward South Korea comes less than a year after it was threatening the U.S. and the South with nuclear war.

North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sin Son Ho, repeated the conciliatory message toward the South at a news conference on Friday. But he demanded the cancellation of the South’s upcoming joint military exercises with the U.S. He also justified the North’s “nuclear forces” as serving as a deterrent against the U.S.

A further obstacle in getting the six-nation talks back on track could be the current antipathy between China and Japan, another party in the talks.

Beijing and Tokyo are at loggerheads over a territorial dispute over some uninhabited islands in the East China Sea and historical issues associated with Japan’s colonial and wartime past. As their security forces have stepped up operations around the contested islands, fears have grown of a clash between them.