TOKYO – China is not optimistic that North Korea will end its nuclear program or re-enter disarmament talks soon, reports said Monday, after Beijing's top nuclear envoy returned from discussions in Pyongyang.
The development threw fresh doubt on a possible breakthrough even as diplomats race behind the scenes to defuse tensions and bring nations back to the negotiating table.
On Monday, Japanese lawmaker Ichiro Aisawa visited Beijing to meet Chinese leaders and discuss measures following the Oct. 9 nuclear test by the North. After talking with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei, Aisawa said Beijing has asked both Pyongyang and Washington for flexibility in restarting talks.
"Vice Foreign Minister Wu said that at this point, China is not optimistic about the resumption of the six-party talks or that North Korea will abandon its nuclear program," Aisawa was quoted as saying by Kyodo News agency. Public broadcaster NHK reported the same.
Foreign Ministry official Sawao Nagamori said he was aware of the reports but could not confirm them. Repeated calls to Aisawa's office in Tokyo went unanswered.
Wu, who is Beijing's nuclear envoy and chairman of the now-stalled six-party talks on halting North Korea's nuclear program, accompanied China's State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan and Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo on a special mission to Pyongyang last week to deliver a message to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry could not immediately confirm Monday's Kyodo report.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said the Chinese government had not relayed such views. But he said Japan will closely cooperate with members of the six-party framework to resume talks soon.
"What's important is that North Korea should not make more provocative acts, observe the United Nations sanctions and return to the six-party talks unconditionally," Shiozaki said.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not comment on the outlook for talks, but praised the Chinese mission to Pyongyang, saying "it's significant that Mr. Tang directly related the concerns of the international community."
Aisawa said Wu briefed him "quite frankly" about the meeting with Kim, Japan's NHK said.
Aisawa refused to provide details of the talks, the report said.
"North Korea has shown some flexibility," Aisawa quoted Wu as telling him at a Beijing press conference broadcast by national broadcaster NHK. "China is also in contact with the United States to see whether it can also be more flexible."
Aisawa said Wu was not supportive of possible five-way talks, because that "may give an excuse for North Korea to withdraw from the six-party talks."
On Sunday, Kyodo reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il told the Chinese mission that Pyongyang has no immediate plans to carry out another nuclear test, but that possible future tests will hinge on U.S. policy toward the country.
Kim also complained about U.S. financial sanctions, which have been in place since September 2005, calling them an obstacle to six-way talks, Kyodo said.
In Seoul on Sunday, South Korean nuclear envoy Chun Yung-woo said he had no information on whether North Korea would conduct a second nuclear test, and that there was no indication the North was interested in resuming disarmament talks.
Kim reiterated that U.S. financial sanctions are the main obstacle and that Pyongyang could return to the talks — stalled since last November — if the sanctions are lifted, Kyodo said. Washington says the financial restrictions, imposed in September 2005, are unrelated to the six-party negotiations.
The same day, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill was in Hong Kong for talks on North Korean bank accounts in neighboring Macau that were frozen under the U.S. restrictions, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Consulate General.
The U.S. banned transactions between Macau-based Banco Delta Asia and American financial institutions in September 2005, characterizing the bank as a "willing pawn for the North Korean government" and alleging that its clients were involved in smuggling and counterfeiting for North Korea.