By Jill Dougherty
The Obama administration says China is increasingly frustrated by the provocative actions of North Korea and Secretary of State John Kerry will try to convince leaders in Beijing that Pyongyang is, as one senior administration official said, "putting China's own interests at risk."
Briefing reporters on Kerry's plane as he flew from London to the first stop on his four-day Asian tour, that official and a senior State Department official said the administration is urging China to use its leverage with the North "otherwise it is very destabilizing."
Specifically, the officials said the United States wants Beijing to "stop the money trail into North Korea" and to carry a strong message to the North that de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula is China's goal.
"We hear a growing tone of frustration ... in official statements from the Chinese," the administration official said. "China is increasingly concerned about the downstream effects of North Korea's reckless pursuit of a nuclear missile capability and complications for China's foreign strategic environment."
The question for Beijing's leaders, that official said, is "Will China's actions allow North Korea to believe it can continue to act with impunity" in ways that hurt Chinese interests and jeopardize stability on the Peninsula.
The United States is not asking China to stop all engagement across the board with North Korea, the officials said, noting there is no embargo on the North.
China, however, has a long tradition of turning a blind eye to companies that do business with North Korea, the officials said.
"China, in its own interest," said the administration official, "should, and I believe is taking action to protect its banks, to protect it companies, to protect its interests and its international reputation from being hijacked by international entities violating international law."
Kerry will seek to define the areas of common interest with China.
"We have a common interest in putting an end to North Korean proliferation," the senior administration official said, "in stopping the highly destabilizing behavior and the provocative actions of the North Koreans."
Kerry's first stop is in South Korea where he will meet with the new president, Park Geun-hye. In Beijing he will meet with China's new president, Xi Jinping, and at his last stop, Tokyo, he will meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, reinstated as Prime Minister in 2012.
All three leaders were born around the same time in late 1950s and are second-generation politicians "used to dealing, at least observing, how power is exercised, how decisions are made," one of the U.S. officials traveling with Kerry explained "And this is the first time that we are engaging with all three of them in the same trip."
Kerry's trip, one official said, coming in the midst of threats from North Korea, is aimed at showing U.S. allies that "we are well-prepared, that alliance matters, that we will defend them."
The timing of his visit to Asia is hugely important," one official said. "We're entering a new stage, both in terms of new leadership in Northeast Asia and the second term of the Obama administration. A new approach to the Asia Pacific region from a very, very strong vantage point."
President Barack Obama's focus on engagement in Asia, they argued, has "bolstered our credibility, bolstered our influence" and set the stage for Kerry "to begin the interactive process of sketching out common vision."
Kerry's trip, however, comes at a moment of extraordinary tension on the Korean Peninsula which is causing reverberations throughout the region.
Asked how South Korea's president Park has weathered the crisis, the senior State Department official said, "She has been very cautious ... and handled it like a pro."
"I cannot imagine what she could have done better," the official added. "I would say she has shown quiet calm."