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US Warning to China Sends Ripples to the Koreas

President Obama warned President Hu Jintao that if China did not step up its pressure on North Korea, the United States would have to redeploy its forces in Asia to protect itself from a potential North Korean strike on American soil, a senior administration official said Thursday.

President Obama & President Hu Joint Press Conference
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President Obama & President Hu Joint Press Conference

Mr. Obama’s warning, first made in a phone call to Mr. Hu last month and repeated over a private dinner at the White House on Tuesday, persuaded China to take a harder line toward North Korea, the official said, which opened the door to a resumption of dialogue between North and South Korea.

On Thursday, the South Korea government said that it had agreed to hold defense talks with the North, the first engagement between the Koreas since a deadly North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean island in November seemed to push the peninsula to the brink of war.

China’s change of heart is far from complete: Beijing has still not condemned North Korea for torpedoing a South Korean warship. During Mr. Hu’s visit, China for the first time joined the United States in publicly expressing concern over a new North Korean uranium-enrichment plant. But there were no immediate signs that it planned to punish the North for its defiance.

Still, Mr. Obama’s pressure, reinforced by cabinet members like Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, moved China into much closer alignment with the United States in dealing with North Korea.

Continuing his United States tour, Mr. Hu traveled from the White House to the chillier end of Pennsylvania Avenue on Thursday to meet with lawmakers waiting to take him to task over issues like human rights and trade policy. Mr. Hu later met with business leaders.

North Korea dominated the intimate dinner that Mr. Obama held for Mr. Hu on Tuesday, the official said. Mr. Obama focused on the North’s recently disclosed uranium-enrichment plant, saying that it was one part of a three-pronged threat to the United States that included the North’s production of plutonium bombs and development of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Without help from China, which is the major supporter of the North Korean government, Mr. Obama told Mr. Hu that the United States would have to take long-term measures, like redeploying its forces, changing its defense posture or beefing up military exercises in Northeast Asia, according to the administration official.

“It was not meant to suggest pre-emption, but we were projecting that a North Korea that becomes a national security threat is going to get a response,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “That was attention-getting for the Chinese.”

The United States angered China last year when it sent the aircraft carrier George Washington to take part in joint drills with South Korea in the Yellow Sea after the North’s sinking of the South’s warship.

The move to resume talks has required concessions from all sides. South Korea has had to swallow its reluctance to engage the North without an apology for its recent attacks. And the United States has had to abandon its resistance to resuming multiparty negotiations with North Korea, something Beijing has pushed and Washington has resisted as being a reward for the North’s aggression.

The North proposed the defense talks, as well as a meeting between the countries’ defense ministers, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry. The ministry said the South was willing to hold higher-level talks, but only if the North took responsibility for its actions.

South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, has been reluctant to engage at all, saying the North was following an old strategy of provoking its neighbor and then requesting talks and economic aid. The United States has gently nudged South Korea to consider renewing contacts with the North.

While the talks are a step forward, analysts cautioned that the preconditions set for higher-level negotiations might prevent any genuine progress. “A discussion of ‘viewpoints’ could just be a fruitless game of words,” said Kim Sung-han, a professor of international relations at Korea University in Seoul.

Next week, a delegation, led by Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg, will travel to Seoul and Tokyo to brief officials there on the Hu visit. The administration’s diplomatic efforts are particularly delicate with South Korea. Having spent so much time building solidarity with Seoul against the North Korean threat, officials said, the United States does not want to pressure the South into talks.

President Lee responded to the North’s overtures in recent weeks by demanding that the North first take concrete steps to dismantle its nuclear program and apologize for its attacks, which stirred deep outrage in South Korea.

On Thursday, the North for the first time acknowledged the South’s conditions and appeared to indicate a willingness to at least discuss them. The North said it wanted to clarify its “viewpoints” on both attacks and also to discuss lowering military tensions on the peninsula, the Unification Ministry said.

An official at the ministry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the South would use the low-level talks to gauge the North’s willingness to meet its conditions for talks between the defense ministers.

Until now, the North has denied involvement in the sinking of the warship, the Cheonan, and has said the attack on the island was provoked by South Korean military drills.

On Capitol Hill, where Mr. Hu met with Congressional leaders, there was less give and take than some lawmakers expected, according to those who were in attendance. Representative Kevin Brady, Republican of Texas, called it “mostly speechifying.”

The format of the meetings — lawmakers afterward described a meeting with House leaders as stilted and formal — did not allow for the amount of griping that the members of Congress had hoped for.

“We weren’t given a chance,” Representative Sander M. Levin, Democrat of Michigan, said afterward.

Mr. Hu was more enthusiastically received by American business and foreign-relations organizationsat a luncheon celebrating his visit. He returned the favor by urging an across-the-board strengthening of relations with the United States.

Mr. Hu called for closer cooperation with the United States in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, offering an olive branch in a region where China’s growing military presence has roiled relations with Washington.

He also urged Americans to look at ties to China with a view toward the future and not the disputes of the day. “China and the United States are different,” he said. “It is only normal that we have some frictions. We should handle bilateral relations from the long-term perspective.”

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