GUANGZHOU, China — The U.S. would be ready to talk with North Korea if it renounced further nuclear or missile tests and followed through on the pledge, U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad said.
“If they announce that they’re not going to be doing any more nuclear tests and they’re not going to be launching any more missiles,” Branstad told Bloomberg Television on Wednesday, when asked what it would take for talks to start. “If they announce that and do that, I think there’s an opportunity for us to get back to the bargaining table.”
Branstad, speaking on the sidelines of the Fortune Global Forum in Guangzhou, also said that sanctions against North Korea were “starting to have an impact.” Calling Kim Jong Un’s push for nuclear weapons “the biggest threat to humankind right now,” the former Iowa governor repeated the Trump administration’s call for China to cut off oil sales to Kim Jong Un’s regime.
“We believe we need to go further,” Branstad said. “We think oil and also these North Korean workers working in China and other countries, that needs to stop.”
President Donald Trump has sought to pressure China to rein in its ally and neighbor, which last week tested a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile. Kim said the test showed that North Korea’s nuclear program was complete because it could deliver an atomic warhead anywhere in the U.S.
While Kim hasn’t yet proven he has the technology to put a warhead on an ICBM and deliver it safely to a target, the test has put new pressure on the U.S. and its allies to find a solution. By declaring his weapons program complete, Kim may have created a path to resume negotiations from a position of strength.
“I interpret this as a starting gun, signaling that he’s opening up the negotiating pas de deux, the dance,” Daniel Russel, who until June was assistant U.S. secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told reporters in Beijing after the test. “The likeliest scenario is that we’ll start seeing some initiatives from one quarter or another and there will be some testing of the ground for negotiations.”
The United Nations’ top official for political affairs is in Pyongyang this week to discuss the nuclear issue, and countries from Canada to Germany are seeking to help facilitate talks. Branstad told the economic forum later Wednesday that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was attending the same event, would meet with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to discuss North Korea on Dec. 19.
Meanwhile, the saber-rattling has continued on both sides, with the U.S. sending a B-1B bomber to join massive aerial drills with South Korea on Wednesday. North Korea had previously threatened to retaliate against the exercise with the “highest-level hard-line countermeasure in history.”
The U.S. must work with China and others to convince North Korea “what they are doing is a suicide mission that makes no sense,” Branstad told the forum. He declined to rule out a Trump visit to North Korea at some point, but said the timing “is probably not right.”
Branstad, 71, has ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping that go back decades. The two men met in 1985, when Xi visited Iowa as part of a delegation from the northern Chinese province of Hebei. Chinese officials refer to the envoy as an “old friend of the Chinese people,” a designation reserved for foreigners who’ve demonstrated a particular understanding of the country.
But the ambassador told Bloomberg that the “very good” chemistry demonstrated in meetings between Trump and Xi was more important. “Building a relationship of trust and respect hopefully can go a long ways to these two big countries, the two biggest economies in the world, working together,” he said.
Still, the U.S. has sharpened its tone toward China since Trump’s state visit last month to Beijing, which ended with no big breakthroughs on trade. The Trump administration has in recent weeks hit China with a probe into the country’s aluminum imports, and accused its leadership of backsliding on market-oriented reforms.
Branstad said he agreed with such criticism. He cited as an example how China blocks access to Facebook while the U.S. allows Americans to use Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s WeChat messaging service.
“There are areas where we think China has not been fair, their market is not open,” Branstad said.