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China's premier calls for return to talks on North Korean nukes

March 15, 2017 (Photo Credit: Ng Han Guan/AP)
BEIJING — Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called Wednesday for new talks to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula ahead of a visit to the region this week by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that is expected to focus heavily on efforts to end North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs.

Li said China was a strong supporter of U.N. resolutions aimed at nudging the North toward ending its programs. He added that China had "fully complied" with economic sanctions on Pyongyang.

He acknowledged the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula and northeast Asia in general, saying any conflict would be disastrous for all sides.

"So what we hope is that all the parties concerned will work together to deescalate the situation, get issues back on the track of dialogue and work together to find proper solutions," Li said at his annual news conference held on the final day of the annual legislative session.

China is Pyongyang's most important diplomatic ally and economic partner and has been under growing pressure from the U.S. to use its influence to rein in actions by the North seen as provocative.

China has long urged a resumption of six-nation denuclearization talks on hold since North Korea withdrew from them in 2009. China says, however, its leverage over Pyongyang is limited. Still, China last month suspended imports of North Korean coal for the rest of the year, depriving the Kim Jong Un regime of a crucial source of foreign currency.

Tillerson arrives in Beijing on Saturday following visits to U.S. allies Japan and South Korea.

Complicating his mission to Beijing are China's strenuous objections to the initial deployment to South Korea of a U.S. missile defense system that have strained relations between Seoul and Beijing and sparked a snowballing economic boycott against South Korea among some Chinese.

In addition to assuaging China's concerns, Tillerson will also seek to arrange a much-anticipated visit by President Xi Jinping to the United States.

Tensions have escalated over North Korean moves to accelerate its weapons development. The North conducted two nuclear tests and 24 ballistic missile tests last year, deepening concern in Washington that it could soon develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

Last week, North Korea launched four missiles into the ocean off Japan as the U.S. and South Korea began annual drills. The allies call the drills routine. Pyongyang regards them as an invasion rehearsal.

Hoping to kick-start discussions, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last week suggested that North Korea might suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for a halt to the joint U.S.-South Korea drills.

The U.S. swiftly dismissed the proposal, and Li did not repeat it.

However, the premier did indicate that China was growing weary of the constant tensions and threats of conflict surrounding its formerly close communist neighbor.

"It's just common sense that no one wants to see chaos on his doorstep," he said.

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