By Arshad Mohammed
BEIJING (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets China's top leaders on Saturday in an effort to persuade them to exert pressure on North Korea to scale back its belligerent rhetoric and, eventually, return to nuclear talks.
Travelling to Beijing for the first time as secretary of state, Kerry made no secret of his desire to see China take a more activist stance toward North Korea, which in recent weeks has threatened nuclear war against the United States.
As the North's main trading partner, financial backer and the closest thing it has to a diplomatic ally, China has a unique ability to use its leverage against the impoverished, isolated state, Kerry said in the South Korean capital Seoul late on Friday.
"There is no group of leaders on the face of the planet who have more capacity to make a difference in this than the Chinese, and everybody knows it, including, I believe, them," Kerry told U.S. executives.
"They want to see us try to reach an amicable resolution to this," he said. "But you have to begin with a reality, and the reality is that if your policy is denuclearization - and it is theirs as it is ours as it is everybody's except the North's at this moment - if that's your policy, you've got to put some teeth into it," he said.
Kerry is scheduled to meet the top echelon of the Chinese leadership on Saturday. He will lunch with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, then see President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and finally State Councilor Yang Jiechi, China's top diplomat who outranks Wang.
His visit to Asia, which will include a stop in Tokyo on Sunday, takes place against after weeks of shrill North Korean threats of an impending war since the imposition of new U.N. sanctions in response to its third nuclear test in February.
North Korea has repeatedly said it will not abandon nuclear weapons which it said on Friday were its "treasured" guarantor of security.
Beijing has been reluctant to apply pressure to Pyongyang, fearing the instability that could result if the North were to implode and send floods of refugees into China.
However, U.S. officials believe China's rhetoric on North Korea has begun to shift, pointing to a recent speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping in which - without referring explicitly to Pyongyang - he said no country "should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain."
Kerry, who arrived in China early on Saturday, told reporters in Seoul that if North Korea's 30-year-old leader went ahead with the launch of a medium-range missile, he would be making "a huge mistake."
Kerry's visit coincided with preparations for Monday's anniversary of North Korean state founder Kim Il-Sung's birth, a possible pretext for a show of strength, with speculation focusing on a possible new intermediate missile test launch.
At a news conference in Seoul on Friday and in a U.S.-South Korean joint statement issued on Saturday, Kerry signaled the U.S. preference for diplomacy to end the tensions, but stressed North Korea must take "meaningful" steps on denuclearization.
"We will continue to encourage North Korea to make the right choice. If North Korea does so, we are prepared to implement the commitments under the 2005 Six-Party Joint Statement," it added, referring to the aid-for-denuclearization agreement.
"But Pyongyang must prove its seriousness by taking meaningful steps to abide by its international obligations," it said.
The United States and its allies believe the North violated the 2005 deal by conducting a nuclear test in 2006 and pursuing a uranium enrichment program that would give it a second path to a nuclear weapon in addition to its plutonium-based program.
(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)