China declined on Tuesday to rule out possible United Nations sanctions against North Korea for carrying out a reported nuclear test but said any military action was unimaginable.
It said it had no information about widespread speculation that the secretive North might be ready to conduct a second test.
Asked what Beijing thought of the possibility of military action, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao told a news conference: ”I think this is an unimaginable way.”
But a mainland-controlled Hong Kong newspaper, Wen Wei Po, reported that China had cancelled leave for troops along at least part of its border with North Korea and that some were conducting ”anti-chemical” training exercises.
Analysts say the Stalinist North’s announcement on Monday it had conducted an underground nuclear test was almost certainly a bid to push the United States into ending a painful crackdown on its finances and finally agree to one-on-one negotiations.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted a North Korean official saying his country would only return to six-country talks to end its nuclear development if Washington made concessions.
”We are still willing to abandon nuclear programmes and return to six-party talks … if the United States takes corresponding measures,” it quoted the unidentified official as saying from Beijing.
But he added that Pyongyang was prepared to put nuclear warheads on missiles and conduct additional nuclear tests ”depending on how the situation develops”.
Far from making concessions, the United States and Japan — a traditional target for North Korean hostility — pushed at the United Nations on Monday for harsh sanctions.
Even South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun vowed to review his ”sunshine policy” of engagement with the reclusive state after commentators slammed him for being too soft. One declared the country was now in its worst crisis since the Korean War more than half a century ago.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, asked in a BBC television interview how worried people should be said, said: ”We should be very worried.”
”The other tragedy about North Korea is what is happening to the people there. The people live in virtual starvation, almost a form of political oppression that’s akin to slavery. And meanwhile they spend billions of dollars on a nuclear weapons programme.”
China’s Foreign Ministry said it was taking active steps to encourage North Korea to return to the six-party talks but warned Pyongyang that it had damaged relations with the only country that comes close to being its ally.
Pyongyang’s declaration was a sharp blow to Chinese President Hu Jintao’s doctrine of using economic and diplomatic coaxing to end its drive to become a nuclear weapons state.
”We think the UN Security Council should take appropriate action,” ministry spokesperson Liu said, adding that Beijing was still mulling what that action should be.
The yen hit an eight-month low against the dollar on talk that Pyongyang had conducted a second test, extending losses after North Korea’s announcement the day before.
UN weighs sanctions
With world leaders condemning the impoverished state’s declaration, Washington drafted a UN resolution calling for international inspections of all cargo moving into and out of North Korea to detect weapons-related material.
It also sought a freeze on transfers or development of weapons of mass destruction and a ban on imports of luxury goods.
The Council was due to discuss the text on Tuesday.
Japan sought more stringent steps, including banning North Korean ships and planes from all ports if they carried nuclear or ballistic missile-related materials.
Japan effectively froze remittances and transfers to North Korea by those suspected of links to the development of weapons of mass destruction after missile tests by Pyongyang in July.
However, officials in Tokyo made clear that, before adding fresh sanctions, Japan wanted confirmation of whether the underground test declared by North Korea actually took place.
A US official said it could take several days for intelligence analysts to determine whether the event in an area near North Korea’s border with China was an unsuccessful nuclear test, a small nuclear device or a non-nuclear explosion.
”If it was a nuclear test, it appears to be more of a fizzle than a pop,” the official said.
Officials in Japan, South Korea and China all said they had detected no change in radiation levels.
Analysts say North Korea is likely to have enough fissile material to make six to eight nuclear bombs but probably not the technology to devise one small enough to mount on a missile. – Reuters