US envoy seeks Chinese help to ease Korea crisis

U.S. special envoy for North Korea Stephen Bosworth reacts to cameras and journalists while walking out of an exit upon arrival at the Capital Airport in Beijing, China, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011.

BEIJING — A top U.S. envoy sought China’s help Thursday in easing the threat of war on the Korean peninsula, hoping to gain insights about a senior Chinese official’s recent meeting with North Korea’s absolute leader, Kim Jong Il.

Stephen Bosworth met with Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun and other officials. He was to travel to Japan later Thursday.

“Ambassador Bosworth and Chinese counterparts had useful consultations on how to coordinate moving forward in dealing with North Korea,” a U.S. Embassy statement said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei confirmed Bosworth’s meetings. “The sides agreed to remain in contact on maintaining peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and over the six-party talks,” Hong told a news conference. The talks on North Korea’s nuclear program involve the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia, but have been on hold for nearly two years.

Bosworth had been expected to ask China for information on last month’s talks in Pyongyang between North Korean leader Kim and Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, Beijing’s top foreign policy official. China has come under growing pressure to push North Korea, its close ally, to change its behavior after the Communist country shelled a South Korean island late last year, killing four people.

North Korea will be a key issue during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington later this month.

In Pyongyang, a North Korean official said Thursday that his government wants a “positive dialogue” with Seoul, saying inter-Korean ties are “now at their worst.”

“The issue of inter-Korean relations can never be solved by confrontation, and dialogue and negotiation is the only way out to solve the present grave situation,” said Kim Won Ho, councilor of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the North’s Democratic Front for Korea’s Reunification, according to footage provided by Associated Press Television News.

The footage also showed Pyongyang citizens looking at newspapers carrying an article on the North Korean dialogue offer.

Bosworth met Wednesday in Seoul with South Korean officials and said he was hopeful for “serious negotiations” soon on the North.

In Washington on Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi held lengthy discussions on North Korea and ironed out details of Hu’s Jan. 19 visit, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

Crowley said both the United States and China want stability on the Korean peninsula. “Neither one of us wants to see the emergence of a North Korea that is a nuclear state,” he said. “We hope that coming out of the visit and the discussions with President Hu Jintao we would have a consensus on the best way to move forward.”

Tensions between the two Koreas have been at their highest level in years since North Korea showered artillery on a South Korean-held island near their disputed maritime border in November, killing four South Koreans. The attack was the first on a civilian area since the 1950-53 Korean War, and occurred in waters not far from the spot where a South Korean warship sank eight months earlier, killing 46 sailors.

The sinking of the warship was also blamed on the North — an allegation the country denies.

But North Korea has recently made some conciliatory moves. On New Year’s Day, the government issued a lengthy statement calling for warmer ties and the resumption of joint projects with South Korea. Pyongyang, eager for food and fuel assistance, has said it wants the stalled nuclear disarmament talks to restart.

Washington and Seoul have said North Korea must first fulfill past nuclear disarmament commitments before talks can resume.