Secretary of State John Kerry flew to China on Saturday and sought to elicit China’s help in dealing with an increasingly recalcitrant nuclear armed North Korea by saying that American missile defenses could be cut back if the North abandoned its nuclear program.
Mr. Kerry’s trip to China, his first since taking office, is part of an intensive three-day push to try to calm tensions on the Korean Peninsula that have threatened to spiral out of control and rattled world leaders.
In a news conference, Mr. Kerry suggested that the United States could remove some newly enhanced missile defenses in the region, though he did not specify which ones. Any eventual cutback would address Chinese concerns about the buildup of American weapons systems in the region.
After back-to-back meetings between Mr. Kerry and China’s top leaders, the two countries announced that they endorsed the principle of ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons, though China did not state publicly what steps it might take to achieve that goal after years of reluctance to crack down on Pyongyang.
“We also joined together in calling on North Korea to refrain from provocations and to abide by international obligations,” Mr. Kerry said.
Worries spiked last week as the South Koreans predicted the North could launch a new missile test any day and after the disclosure that an American intelligence agency concluded for the first time with “moderate confidence” that North Korea learned how to make a nuclear warhead small enough to be delivered by a ballistic missile. The administration has since said that it was premature to conclude that Pyongyang had a fully tested weapons system.
Mr. Kerry’s stance on newly fortified missile defenses appeared to be a selling point to get China, the only country presumed to have any real influence over North Korea, to do what it has long resisted — crack down hard enough that North Korea’s leaders will give up an increasingly sophisticated nuclear program.
In recent weeks, the administration has dispatched two ships outfitted with Aegis antimissile defenses to the region and said it will speed up the positioning of land-based missile defenses on Guam to protect allies in the region after North Korea’s threats to rain missiles on United States troops there and on South Korea.
Many Chinese believe the antimissile systems are part of a containment strategy against them at a time when the United States is pursuing a “pivot” to Asia.
In the past, China has been motivated by a different fear: that any move to destabilize the North would lead to a collapse of the regime and deliver the entire peninsula to the United States’ sphere of influence, possibly bringing American troops in South Korea closer to its border.
China’s cooperation is essential to the Obama administration’s strategy of holding a tough line on Pyongyang in an attempt to achieve the type of long-lasting solution on the nuclear program that has eluded a string of United States presidents. Previous administrations responded to North Korean provocations by eventually offering aid to tamp down tensions, only to see the North’s promises to relinquish its nuclear program evaporate once the aid had been delivered.
Mr. Kerry said he explained to China why the United States felt it needed more missile defenses in the region.
“Obviously if the threat disappears — i.e. North Korea denuclearizes — the same imperative does not exist at that point of time for us to have that kind of robust forward leaning posture of defense,” he said. “And it would be our hope in the long run, or better yet in short run, that we can address that.”
Mr. Kerry’s remarks are likely to stir concern among staunch advocates of missile defense in the United States, who also see antimissile systems as a means of responding to China’s growing military might. His aides say any changes would require the input of the Pentagon.
Even if China were to take a strong position with its longtime ally, possibly cutting back essential aid and fuel, North Korea might not fall into line. Under its new leader, Kim Jong-un, the North has snubbed China several times, including refusing Chinese entreaties to cancel the recent nuclear test that set off the war of words on the Peninsula.
At the core of the issue is the United States’ inability to draw North Korea into a serious round of nuclear talks. North Korea’s apparent determination to expand its nuclear weapons program and the American demand that it commit up front to eventually relinquishing those arms have raised the question of whether there is even any basis for negotiations. “China has an enormous ability to help make a difference here,” Mr. Kerry said on Friday in Seoul.
The Chinese stance on North Korea has never been a simple one. On one hand, the Chinese prize stability and are eager to avoid a crisis that would spawn a flood of refugees or prompt the United States to shift more forces to the Pacific. On the other hand, that same concern for stability has meant that it is reluctant to take steps that would undermine the North Korean government’s hold on power and eliminate a friendly buffer between Chinese territory and South Korean and American forces.
In Beijing, Mr. Kerry met with the new president, Xi Jinping, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Premier Li Keqiang and State Councilor Yang Jiechi.
Mr. Yang said at a dinner with Mr. Kerry on Saturday night that China was committed to “the denuclearization process on the Korean Peninsula.” But the Chinese state councilor also stressed that the “issue should be handled and resolved peacefully through dialogue and consultation.”
To encourage the Chinese to deal with the North Korean nuclear problem, Mr. Kerry said that he had shared “very in-depth” information illustrating the danger of how a nuclear North Korea could promote the proliferation of nuclear arms in Asia and the Middle East.
Mr. Kerry said his aim was to find a way to revive the goals of the six-party talks on the North’s nuclear program, which have been stalled since 2009 when North Korea withdrew. The talks have included North and South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States.
He also portrayed cooperation on North Korea as just one element of a “model partnership” the United States hoped to build with China on diplomatic, economic and environmental issues.
Mr. Kerry said there would be additional discussions in the weeks ahead with the Chinese that would involve American intelligence experts including Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The two sides also called on North Korea to refrain from provocations, an apparent allusion to a potential missile test the South Koreans said could happen soon.
Bonnie S. Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said China was very frustrated with Mr. Kim and was taking some action, like cracking down on the flow of illicit North Korean funds through Chinese banks. At the same time, she noted, the Chinese fear the United States’ recent actions, including a test flight of B-2 bombers over South Korea, would further incite the North.
The United States “keeps sending more fighter bombers and missile defense ships to the waters of East Asia and carrying out massive military drills with Asian allies in a dramatic display of pre-emptive power,” the state-run news agency Xinhua said Saturday.
Jane Perlez contributed reporting.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: April 13, 2013
An earlier version of this article misidentified the Chinese official who stressed that “the denuclearization process on the Korean Peninsula” should be “handled and resolved peacefully through dialogue and consultation.” It was State Councilor Yang Jiechi, not Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
By MICHAEL R. GORDON