WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump met China’s top foreign policy adviser Monday, and U.S. officials huddled with key Asian powers to discuss tensions with North Korea, which have been stoked by a recent missile test and an airport killing officials believe was ordered by Pyongyang.
State Councilor Yang Jiechi is the first senior Chinese official to visit the U.S. since Trump took office five weeks ago. Yang led a six-member delegation in talks first with Trump’s new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, senior Trump adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and others.
The two sides “discussed shared interests in national security,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said, without elaborating. Yang’s two-day visit comes amid uncertainty about how the world’s two largest economies will manage their trade relationship and security challenges in East Asia.
In that region, North Korea’s rapid progress toward acquiring a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike the U.S. mainland poses one of the sternest national security challenges for Trump. His administration is currently reviewing how to deal with young dictator Kim Jong Un.
Also Monday, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun huddled at the State Department with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, Kenji Kanasugi and Kim Hong-kyun. The meeting was part of continued U.S. efforts to get its main allies in Asia to co-operate more closely on security.
In a potentially hopeful sign for the U.S., China recently announced it was suspending coal imports from North Korea, increasing economic pressure on its traditional ally. In return, Beijing wants the U.S. to restart long-stalled negotiations with North Korea.
But on Friday, the U.S. government nixed what would have been the first unofficial talks on U.S. soil in five years between North Korean government officials and former U.S. officials. No current U.S. officials were to participate in the talks in New York in early March. But allowing them to proceed could have signalled the Trump administration’s openness to U.S. engagement with North Korea.
The decision came after Malaysian authorities announced earlier Friday that the exiled half brother of Kim Jong Un was assassinated using VX nerve agent. The killing is widely blamed on North Korea. In Congress, lawmakers are seeking tougher sanctions and for the North again to be declared a state sponsor of terrorism, a designation lifted in 2008.
Tensions could rise further.
The U.S. is due to begin annual military exercises with South Korea in March, which invariably provoke warlike rhetoric and threats from North Korea. Pyongyang views the joint military exercises as preparation by the U.S. and South Korea for an invasion across the heavily militarized border between the two Koreas.
North Korea hasn’t directly criticized Trump but is determined to advance its nuclear and missile programs. On Feb. 12, it tested a new type of ballistic missile as Trump met Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Florida.
Among Asian nations, China holds the greatest power to change North Korea’s calculus. The North is heavily reliant on trade with China. Trump accuses Beijing of failing to use its leverage.
Trump on Monday talked up his selection of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as U.S. ambassador to China. He told a state governors’ meeting at the White House that Beijing was “very happy” with the choice. The Senate hasn’t confirmed Branstad yet.
Associated Press writer Vivian Salama contributed to this report.