Top Trump administration officials held high-level meetings Wednesday with their Chinese counterparts as the White House struggles to find new ways to put pressure on North Korea to throttle back its nuclear arms program.
“We hope China will do their part,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters after he and Secretary of Defense James Mattis met at the State Department with China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi and People’s Liberation Army Chief of Joint Staff Gen. Fang Fenghui.
Unable to persuade or coerce North Korea to rein in its nuclear arms and ballistic missile programs, the White House had publicly appealed to China to help ease the threat — and then appeared to blame Beijing when that strategy failed.
Tillerson said China should apply more economic and political pressure on Pyongyang, including refusing to do business with North Korean entities that have been blacklisted by the United Nations.
The meeting occurred a day after President Trump acknowledged that his attempts to convince Chinese President Xi Jinping to do more had not paid off. The two met in early April at Trump’s beachfront estate in Florida, Mar-a-Lago.
“While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out,” Trump said via Twitter on Tuesday. “At least I know China tried!”
That followed the death Monday of former University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, who was released last week from 17 months detention in North Korea on charges of stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel. He was flown home in a coma and never recovered.
Asked if Trump’s tweet represented frustration with China, Mattis said the frustration lay with North Korea because of its mistreatment of the 22-year-old American.
“There is no way that we can look at a situation like this with any kind of understanding,” he said. “This goes beyond any kind of understanding of law and order, of humanity, of responsibility towards any human being. So what you’re seeing, I think, is the American people’s frustration with a regime that provokes, and provokes, and provokes, and basically plays outside the rules, plays fast and loose with the truth, that sort of thing.”
Three other Americans are held in North Korean jails, according to the State Department. It routinely warns against traveling to North Korea but about 1,000 Americans visit the rigidly ruled Communist nation each year.
U.S. officials said the focus of Wednesday’s meeting was the “urgent threat” posed by North Korea and the U.S. attempts to seek China’s help.
Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of State for east Asian and Pacific affairs, said Washington would hold North Korea accountable for its “flagrant and repeated disregard” for U.N. resolutions that bar its ballistic missile and nuclear tests.
She said the goal was to create a “global echo chamber” so the international community would speak with one voice in condemning North Korea.
The United States and the United Nations have imposed numerous trade and travel sanctions on North Korea’s leadership, military and companies over the last two decades. But leader Kim Jong Un has circumvented many of the restrictions, often with the help of Chinese companies or individuals.
How hard China has tried to stop them, or to moderate North Korean behavior, is a matter of debate.
China has imposed a ban on North Korea’s coal exports, which account for 40% of its total exports to China, for the rest of 2017. But some U.S. officials say China also should block the country’s oil imports, which would hurt its economy far more.
Other countries have denied the North Korean airline landing and refueling rights, have expelled diplomats or lowered diplomatic ties, and frozen some assets. China, which is wary of creating too much instability in its nuclear-armed neighbor, has not.
U.S. relations with China have hit several rough spots recently. Washington and Beijing are still far apart on the territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea, for example.
Over the last few years, China has built up several shoals and reefs into airstrips and military sites, and the Pentagon has responded by sending warships and aircraft into the area to assert freedom of navigation.
Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and several other countries accuse Beijing of trying to militarize the resource-rich area, and have challenged China’s claims of sovereignty over the islands.
China and the Trump administration also have clashed over the U.S. deployment in South Korea of a sophisticated antiballistic missile system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD.
Beijing claims the system’s sophisticated radars could be used to peer deep into China, negating its military deterrent. Washington insists the system would only be used to track and knock down North Korean ballistic missiles in event of an attack.
A Pentagon spokesman, Cmdr. Gary Ross, said the antimissile system is “absolutely critical” to defend South Korea and U.S. forces stationed there.
Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan contributed to this article.
For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter