By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) – North Korea’s neighbors and the United States are coordinating closely to draw the isolated state back to nuclear disarmament talks and reviewing possible next steps, a senior U.S. diplomat said on Wednesday.
Many analysts have been skeptical of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s recent avowal that he could return to six-party talks aimed at dismantling his country’s nuclear weapons program.
But other governments in the stalled negotiations are working closely together on ways to bring Pyongyang back to them, Kurt Campbell, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, told reporters.
Kim made the heavily hedged commitment during a meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao this month and Campbell said there were no divisions between Washington and Beijing over how to deal with Pyongyang.
“I have rarely seen better coordination between China and the United States in particular,” said Campbell, formerly a scholar specialized in Asian security.
“There is a virtually unprecedented acceptance of basic goals and ambitions associated with the six-party talks and negotiations with North Korea.”
Those talks bring together North and South Korea, China, the United States, Japan and Russia.
Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, has been in Beijing for two days of talks ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit next month.
The range of issues discussed underscored the growing importance of China to U.S. policy. Campbell said they also covered Myanmar, Iran, military ties and climate change.
North Korea has said it wants bilateral negotiations with the United States to take precedence over the six-party talks, which China has hosted since 2003.
The North walked away from the talks last December and in April declared them defunct. In May, it staged its second ever nuclear test blast, drawing fresh international sanctions.
NEW NORTH KOREAN BLAST ON U.S. POLICY
On Wednesday, North Korea’s main newspaper Rodong Sinmun scorned U.S. policy as “shameless, preposterous and brigandish sophism,” the official KCNA news agency reported.
“It was none other than the U.S. that compelled the DPRK to have access to nuclear deterrent,” KCNA quoted the paper as saying. The DPRK is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s formal name.
Campbell said North Korea’s neighbors agreed the six-way talks remained key to resolving the dispute and bilateral talks could only take place in the framework of the multilateral talks.
He also said the North’s neighbors may be considering fresh initiatives, but gave no details.
“We are now reviewing steps in the near future,” he said, adding that the United States was also closely consulting with Japan and South Korea.
“I think we will have more to say about this shortly.”
Washington is also exploring wider cooperation with Beijing on other regional trouble spots, including Myanmar and Afghanistan, Campbell said.
China is the country closest to Myanmar’s military leaders and could play an important role in U.S. policy toward the isolated Southeast Asian regime, which has been under review, he said.
“We think their insights and their role and their support behind the scenes could be very valuable going forward,” he said of China’s potential role in Myanmar.
But Campbell suggested that some distance remained between Beijing and Washington on how to address Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran is a major supplier of China’s imported crude oil, and Beijing has been wary of stiffer sanctions Western powers say may be needed to deter Tehran from pushing ahead with disputed nuclear activities.
Critics say those activities could give Iran the ability to make atomic weapons. Iran says its activities are peaceful.
“We are going to need to see more cooperation and coordination between the United States and China,” Campbell said of Iran.
(Editing by Lucy Hornby and Ron Popeski)