BEIJING – China insisted on Thursday that six-party disarmament talks remain the way to defuse conflict over North Korea's nuclear ambitions, despite Pyongyang abandoning the process and expelling U.N. inspectors.
Beijing appears set on acting in public as if North Korea has not dismissed the talks as useless, announced it would never return to the table and said it would restart a plant that makes bomb-grade plutonium.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu instead repeated her government's call for calm and said a consensus still exists among the negotiating powers.
We hope that all sides will exercise calm and restraint and be far-sighted in paying attention to the big picture, together striving to advance the six-party talks process, Jiang told a regular news conference.
China's unwavering approach appears aimed at eventually coaxing Pyongyang back to negotiations, but not all the six-party powers were so unruffled.
International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors left North Korea on Thursday after Pyongyang told them to leave the Yongbyon complex, which can make plutonium, the material used by North Korea in its first and only nuclear test blast in 2006.
Naturally, this evokes disappointment although these actions were not a surprise -- the North Korean side had warned of such a possibility, said Grigory Logvinov, the Russian Foreign Ministry's envoy for special affairs, according to Interfax news agency.
Beijing's handling of impoverished North Korea has wobbled in past days, suggesting policy makers did not anticipate the full force of Pyongyang's anger.
China backed a U.N. Security Council statement on Monday condemning North Korea for launching a rocket on April 5 that other powers said violated an earlier resolution. Until that statement Beijing had avoided open criticism, instead suggesting it was a legitimate satellite launch.
Since then China has avoided joining other powers in publicly criticizing North Korea's even more vehement response.
We generally like to handle problems under the table, rather than applying public pressure, said Xu Guangyu, a former Chinese military officer who now works in the government-backed China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.
It's a difficult situation, but I think China will remain restrained and low-key... China will wait until the United States has a new proposal on the table.
The six-party talks bring together North and South Korea, China, the United States, Japan and Russia, and from their start in 2003 they have been a proud display of Beijing's growing diplomatic stature.
Washington has also said it remains committed to the talks, which sealed an earlier deal whereby North Korea agreed to disable its Yongbyon nuclear plant in return for energy aid.
South Korea on Thursday also urged the North to return to the table.
We have suggested through the presidential statement of the U.N. Security Council that North Korea come to the table of the 6-party talks to discuss the problem, South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan told reporters after meeting his Japanese counterpart in Tokyo.
But North Korea may continue using its nuclear capabilities to test the other powers in coming months, said a nuclear expert at a South Korean government-affiliated think tank, who asked not be named due to the sensitive subject matter.
North Korea can reverse the disablement steps slowly and deliberately to take full advantage of each move to add to its leverage in the negotiating process, he said.
I believe the reprocessing facilities can be fully restored in three to six months, he said. But it would take about a year to restore the reactor.
Other experts have said it would also take the North a year at least to make enough new fuel rods to restart the dilapidated Yongbyon reactor.