BEIJING - US Secretary of State John Kerry told Chinese President Xi Jinping Saturday the Korean nuclear impasse was at a "critical time", as he pressed Pyongyang's key ally to help defuse sky-high tensions.
The region has been engulfed by threats of nuclear war by Pyongyang in response to UN sanctions imposed over its recent rocket and nuclear tests. There are fears it could magnify the crisis by soon firing a medium-range missile.
"Mr. President, this is obviously a critical time with some very challenging issues," Kerry told Xi in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on the latest stop of his Asian tour.
As well as "issues on the Korean peninsula", he cited Iran's nuclear ambitions, Syria and the Middle East, and the world's economic woes.
Kerry flew in from talks in South Korea with President Park Geun-Hye, where he offered public support for her plans to initiate some trust-building with the North.
Washington is seeking to persuade Beijing to help rein in the bellicose threats from North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, and bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table over its suspect nuclear program.
"I think it's clear to everybody in the world that no country in the world has as close a relationship or as significant an impact on the DPRK (North Korea) than China," Kerry said in Seoul.
China has backed North Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War and could wield tremendous leverage over the isolated communist regime thanks to the vital aid it provides, including almost all of its neighbor's energy imports.
But analysts say it is wary of pushing too hard for fear of destabilizing North Korea, which could send a wave of hungry refugees flooding into China and ultimately lead to a reunified Korea allied with the United States.
China and the US have a sometimes strained relationship, with Beijing uneasy over Washington's "rebalancing" towards Asia, and Kerry's first visit to the region since becoming America's top diplomat has been completely overshadowed by the Korean crisis.
In opening remarks in the presence of reporters, Xi did not mention Korea but said the China-US relationship was "at a new historical stage and has got off to a good start" since his ascension as head of state last month.
China is estimated to provide as much as 90 percent of its neighbor's energy imports, 80 percent of its consumer goods and 45 percent of its food, according to the US-based Council on Foreign Relations.
Despite intelligence reports that the North has prepared what would be a highly-provocative, medium-range missile launch, Park has in recent days made some conciliatory gestures to the regime in Pyongyang.
In a meeting with her ruling party officials on Friday, Park said the South should meet with the North and "listen to what North Korea thinks".
While Kerry berated Pyongyang's "unacceptable" rhetoric and warned that any missile launch would be a "huge mistake", he also took pains to stress US backing for Park's initiative.
"President Park was elected with a different vision for the possibilities of peace and we honor that vision... and we hope that vision is the one that will actually take hold here," he said.
In another sign of US hopes of defusing tensions, Kerry did not visit the truce village of Panmunjom, a common stop for foreign leaders visiting Seoul.
In a joint statement released just before Kerry left Seoul, the United States said it welcomed the "trust building process" proposed by Park.
Kerry was to meet China's new Premier Li Keqiang later on Saturday.
Without naming any countries, Xi said recently that "no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains".
After China, Kerry heads to Japan which is also deeply involved in the North Korea issue and which deployed Patriot missiles around Tokyo this week as anticipation of a missile launch by the North mounted.
Kerry said he hoped China, Japan and the United States would be able to find the "unity" required to offer a "very different set of alternatives for how we can proceed and ultimately how we can defuse this situation".
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