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James Baker: China holds key to denuclearization of North Korea

"China is the only country in the world that really has any influence, significant influence on North Korea," Baker told NBC News' Andrea Mitchell.
Time Warner's Conversations On The Circle: A Conversation With James A. Baker, III, Moderated By Fareed Zakaria, Host Of CNN's Fareed Zakaria, GPS
Former White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker, III speaks on stage at Time Warner's Conversations on The Circle, at One Time Warner Center on April 2, 2015 in New York City.Larry Busacca / Getty Images for Time Warner file

China has the power to usher in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula — and should take a leading role in doing so, even if that means eventually bringing about regime change, former Secretary of State James Baker told NBC News Wednesday in an exclusive interview.

Baker, who sat down with NBC's Andrea Mitchell for a wide-ranging discussion about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's recent trip to China and other topics, explained that a nuclear-armed Pyongyang is as bad for Beijing as it is for the U.S.

"What I'm struck by, really, frankly, Andrea, is that the United States and China both have a problem with the past behavior of North Korea and Kim Jong Un," he said. "I mean, China's not happy with the idea that they're going to have a heavily nuclear-armed Korean Peninsula right there on their border. They don't want to see that. We don't want to see that."

Baker, who served as secretary of state for President George H.W. Bush, as Treasury Secretary to President Ronald Reagan and Undersecretary of Commerce to President Gerald Ford, also said he would have preferred to see the U.S. work more closely with China ahead of Kim’s recent visit there.

"I think it's too bad that there wasn't some way that we could work with the Chinese to achieve this, this result of denuclearization of the peninsula," he said. "China is the only country in the world that really has any influence, significant influence on North Korea."

"We've seen the North Koreans talk a lot but not do anything constructive by way of reducing their missiles and development of nuclear weapons," he added, cautioning that a planned meeting between Kim and President Donald Trump is unlikely to yield tangible results.

Baker also noted the risk of a military option should talks fail, and said that he hopes the nations can find a diplomatic solution.

"If you fail here, then you better be prepared to know what your next step is going to be," Baker said. "And everybody knows the cataclysmic consequences of a war on the Korean Peninsula in terms of loss of life, primarily Korean loss of life."

Still, he said, China holds the key.

"I would have sent some high-level envoy to Xi Jinping, the president of China, that the Chinese trust and have confidence in. And I would have said, 'Look, you don't like what's going on in the Korean Peninsula. We don't like what's going on. Why don't we cooperate to stop it?'" Baker told Mitchell.

“We, the United States, will support any government you install in North Korea, provided they repudiate the acquisition or maintenance of nuclear weapons. We will trade with that government, we will establish diplomatic relations, we will execute a peace treaty ending the Korean War,” he said, referring to what he would have told China. “Your job is to put a government in place there that is different than this government."

"You’re talking about regime change," Mitchell said.

“Yeah, that’s what it would be,” Baker said, adding that at some point the question would come up if Kim doesn't change his behavior.

His remarks come just after state-run media in both China and North Korea reported that Kim had traveled to Beijing for talks with the Chinese President Xi, in what is believed to have been the dictator’s first foreign trip since he took power in 2011. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed on Tuesday that the Chinese government had contacted the White House to brief the administration on the visit.

That visit comes after Trump agreed, earlier this month, to meet with Kim, after the leader pledged to refrain from further nuclear tests and move toward denuclearization. Previously, the two men had traded increasingly tense barbs for months over North Korean missile tests and its nuclear program.