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Kerry: China must do more to resolve North Korean missile crisis

Wrapping up his six-nation tour, Secretary of State John Kerry told NBC's Andrea Mitchell he's open to direct talks between the U.S. and North Korea, if Pyongyang stops testing nuclear weapons and issuing threats.

TOKYO -- Secretary of State John Kerry has called on China to do more to help resolve the North Korean missile crisis, saying the country provided the Pyongyang regime with a “lifeline.”

In an interview with NBC's TODAY that aired on Monday, Kerry also said any deal with the rogue state would need to be structured so that Pyongyang could not later renege on its terms.

In Beijing, John Kerry tried to persuade China's President Xi Jinping to lean on his ally, North Korea - arguing that Pyongyang's erratic young leader is now threatening the stability of the entire region. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

The crisis developed after North Korea threatened to carry out a pre-emptive nuclear strike against its enemies in response to United Nations sanctions imposed because of an underground nuclear test in February and a rocket test in December.

In recent days the North Koreans have readied missiles for launch and some speculated this would happen on Monday, when the nation celebrates the birth of founder Kim Il Sung, current leader Kim Jong Un’s grandfather.

In an interview in Tokyo before flying back to the U.S. on Monday, Kerry said that if the missiles were not fired “that would mean perhaps we're turning a corner and there's a possibility of moving in a better direction.”

“Everybody understands the negative side of what happens if there is a shoot.  And my hope is that we can move in a different direction here. China, I think, is serious about this,” he said. “They understand the instability this is creating.”

Kerry said it was “very important” for the United States to make clear to North Korea that there would be “consequences for their action” and to reaffirm its security agreements with its allies in the region.

“That done, I think it is very important to the Chinese to focus on the fact that ... if they're not prepared to put the pressure on the North -- and they have the greatest ability to have an impact on the North -- then this can become more destabilizing,” he said. “And that instability is not in China's interest, certainly. It's not in anybody's interest in the region.”

“So if we're going to operate according to what's in people's interest, China's and everybody else's, I believe China needs to become more engaged in this effort,” he said.

Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door to direct disarmament talks with North Korea, but there is still no sign Kim Jong Un is prepared to stop testing nuclear weapons. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

“It is obvious that China is the lifeline to North Korea. Everybody knows that China provides the vast majority of the fuel to North Korea.  China is their biggest trading party, their biggest food donor and so forth,” he added.

When asked about a comment by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that North Korea had a history of breaking diplomatic deals, Kerry replied: "John is absolutely correct, that has been the pattern. And I have raised that issue with the Chinese … There has been a history of ... just playing this game and then ultimately there's cheating or a complete reneging. We are determined, I am determined to try to find if there is a different formula.  And that is a … conversation that I specifically had with the Chinese.”

On Sunday, Kerry said the United States was prepared to “reach out” to North Korea’s leadership.

The United States has offered talks, but on the precondition that North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions. North Korea deems its nuclear arms a "treasured sword" and has vowed never to give them up.

On Monday, North Korean state media made hardly a mention of conflict in contrast to weeks of tirades against its enemies in what some saw as good sign.

"South Korea and the United States have sent a message for dialogue, so for now the North is switching to that mode," Yang Moo-jin, of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told Reuters. "The North's strategic intention has been to try to get some kind of response from the United States and South Korea and now they have that. They won't be brushing away the suggestions to enter dialogue lightly." 

'Bright faces'
In Pyongyang on Monday, residents spilled into the streets in apparent celebration, The Associated Press reported. Girls in red and pink jackets skipped along streets festooned with celebratory banners and flags and parents pushed strollers with babies bundled up against the chill.

"Although the situation is tense, people have got bright faces and are very happy," Han Kyong Sim, a drink stand worker, told the AP. 

The youngest son of Kim Jong Il succeeded his late father in 2011, becoming the third member of his family to rule the unpredictable and reclusive communist state.

North Korea's state-controlled KCNA news agency reported that Kim Jong Un had received a letter from the Central Committee of the Anti-Imperialist National Democratic Front that praised his grandfather.

“The life of Kim Il Sung was an epic-like one of an invincible hero who clarified the truth that arms are a lifeline of the nation and guarantees the victory of revolution, restored the country by leading to victory the hard-fought battles against the Japanese and the U.S. imperialists,” the letter said.

The letter “pledged to join the all-people resistance to frustrate the frantic moves of the hostile forces for a nuclear war and make positive contribution to bringing about a fresh turn in the efforts for national reunification,” KCNA said.

South Korea's Defense Ministry said it remained on guard against any missile launch to coincide with Kim Il Sung’s birth, Reuters reported.

"The military is not easing up on its vigilance on the activities of the North's military with the view that they can conduct a provocation at any time," a ministry spokesman said. 

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Related:

Kerry in Japan: US ready to 'reach out' to North Korea

China urges peaceful resolution of North Korea nuclear standoff

Full North Korea coverage from NBC News

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