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But like his predecessors, Mr. Trump is gradually learning that for all its talk about cooperation, China is deeply reluctant to take any measures that could seriously destabilize the North Korean government, for fear the country might collapse or be absorbed by the South.


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So China’s strategy has been to buy time — and preserve the status quo — with talks that may be linked to some kind of testing freeze. They may now have a new advocate of that approach, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, who was elected on a platform pledging resumed engagement with the North. On Tuesday, he embraced a similar idea, telling Norah O’Donnell of CBS News in an interview that a freeze could be a way station to a second phase of talks that would “achieve the complete dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program.”

In an interview broadcast on Wednesday, the North Korean ambassador to India, Kye Chun-yong, said his country was willing to consider a moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile tests if the United States and South Korea stopped their annual joint military exercises.

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“Under certain circumstances, we are willing to talk in terms of freezing nuclear testing or missile testing,” Mr. Kye said, speaking in English. “For instance, if the American side completely stops big, large-scale military exercises temporarily or permanently, then we will also temporarily stop. Let’s talk about how to solve the Korean issue peacefully.”

But to American officials, a freeze is a trap that previous administrations have stepped into. The Clinton administration tried a freeze in 1994 that the North Koreans first cheated on and then openly discarded early in the administration of President George W. Bush. At the end of Mr. Bush’s term, a second such freeze and partial dismantlement of a nuclear reactor was negotiated, only to be abandoned by the North Koreans as soon as President Barack Obama entered office.

Mr. Tillerson himself rejected the idea of such a negotiated freeze when he visited South Korea early this year, saying that it would simply enshrine “a comprehensive set of capabilities” that North Korea has already developed, a reference to its arsenal of a dozen or more nuclear weapons and a growing fleet of short- and medium-range missiles that can hit American troops in the region, along with South Korea and Japan.

But the idea has been embraced by some longtime Korea experts, including former Defense Secretary William J. Perry, who say that it is the only way to buy some time before North Korea successfully tests an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States.

All the other options available to the United States have major drawbacks. They include secondary sanctions on Chinese banks and companies doing business with North Korea; a military strike; or simple acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear power.

Secondary sanctions could ignite a trade war. Even a limited military strike could lead North Korea to attack Seoul with conventional weapons, with potentially catastrophic results. And few in the United States government are ready to accept North Korea as an established nuclear power.


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Without a clear alternative, the Trump administration remains committed to urging China to crack down on Pyongyang. Some 90 percent of North Korea’s trade is with China. And although China recently banned imports of North Korea coal, overall trade between the two countries has actually been increasing.

Mr. Tillerson said countries around the world were cracking down on activities North Korea uses to fund its weapons programs, “and we hope China will do their part as well.”

Mr. Mattis vowed to “continue to take necessary measures to defend ourselves and our allies.”

Choe Sang-Hun contributed reporting from Seoul, South Korea.

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A version of this article appears in print on June 22, 2017, on Page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: U.S. Is Pressed to Pursue Deal to Freeze North Korea Tests. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe, Site News Today\\\'s world Presenting Daily News News News Politics, Business, Sports Up Celebrity Gossip.

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