BEIJING — Secretary of State John F. Kerry arrived here Saturday hoping to convince Chinese leaders to take a more a more active role in encouraging North Korea to tone down its recent wave of antagonistic rhetoric and nuclear threats.
Aware that China's close relationship with Pyongyang may complicate the effort, Mr. Kerry tread carefully in an initial meeting with newly-appointed Chinese President Xi Jingping, avoiding any direct mention of Pyongyang's recent threats and instead lumping North Korea with other issues including the global economy and Iran.
"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 economies around the world that are in need of a boost," Mr. Kerry told the Chinese President as the two met in the presence of U.S. reporters and members of China's media.
In his first visit here as America's top diplomat, Mr. Kerry used careful language, telling Mr. Xi that he hoped to "really understand the road map ahead, the one that you envision and the one that hopefully we can contribute to."
While the remarks were followed by a deeper and private discussion between the two men, publicly, Mr. Kerry used significantly softer language than he had a day earlier during a visit to South Korea.
After meeting in Seoul with South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Friday, Mr. Kerry said that "No country in the world has as close a relationship or as significant an impact on [North Korea] than China."
"China has an enormous ability to help make a difference here and I hope that in our conversations when I get there tomorrow we'll be able to lay out a path ahead that can defuse this tension," Mr. Kerry said.
Such optimism aside, there were signs going into Mr. Kerry's China visit that U.S. officials are still struggling to make sense of Beijing's current posture toward the Korean situation — especially given the since fresh slate of leaders taking hold under President Xi.
"I think that China would like to maintain the status quo as it is right now," said one U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity, in reference to Beijing's relationship with Pyongyang.
North Korea "frankly does provide a buffer" between Chinese military forces and U.S. military forces stationed in South Korea, the official said. "But at the same time, I think China is struggling with the actions of [North Korea] and trying to figure out a way that they may be able to influence them."
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