WASHINGTON—Japan, backed by the United States and Britain, pressed Wednesday for U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea's weapons programs in retaliation for a battery of missile tests that's rattled markets around the world.
The push for sanctions could test U.S.-China relations. China has leverage as communist North Korea's only ally and a major supplier of its food and energy. China also could protect North Korea because, as one of five permanent Security Council members, China has the power to veto resolutions.
Beijing has declined in the past to punish its neighbor for provocative acts, largely because it doesn't want to see North Korea break apart and send millions of refugees across its border. Beijing also wants to protect growing Chinese investments in North Korea.
The United States, which has no diplomatic or economic ties with North Korea that it could use as leverage, made it clear that it expected China to back a meaningful response to the test-firings.
"China understands that this was a provocative, unacceptable action," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
U.S. envoy Christopher Hill was due in Beijing on Thursday on a trip that was also taking him to Tokyo and Seoul for consultations on how to proceed.
There was no clear word from Beijing on its view. The Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, Wang Guangya, called the North Korean tests regrettable. He gave no indication on whether China would support the draft resolution.
"If all council members feel that some appropriate action is needed by the council, we will see," Wang said.
North Korea on Wednesday (Tuesday and Wednesday in the United States) fired six short- and medium-range missiles and a long-range Taepodong-2 that exploded 42 seconds into its flight over the Sea of Japan.
The tests helped push stocks lower and gasoline prices higher on Wednesday amid worries of intensified tensions between North Korea and Washington.
U.S. officials warned that the current series of tests may not be over. The Associated Press cited South Korean media reports that said North Korea has at least three more short- or medium-range missiles on launch pads.
President Bush said Wednesday that the Taepodong-2's failure didn't diminish his desire to resolve the threat posed by North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons programs.
"I view this as an opportunity to remind the international community that we must work together ... to convince the North Korean leader to give up any weapons programs," Bush said.
The Pentagon said U.S. satellites, aircraft and radars had tracked every firing and that interceptors of the rudimentary U.S. missile defense system were ready for launching from bases in California and Alaska, if necessary.
Japan's draft resolution at the Security Council condemned the missile tests as a threat to international security. Japan and South Korea, both key trade partners of the United States, are in range of North Korean missiles.
The draft, co-sponsored by the United States and Britain, demanded that North Korea cease launches, freeze its ballistic missile development program and reaffirm its moratorium on missile tests. It required that U.N. members prevent transfers of funds, materials and technologies to Pyongyang or front companies that could be used in North Korea's missile program.
And it called on North Korea to return immediately to negotiations with the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea on ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program in return for economic and security benefits. China has hosted the talks.
North Korea agreed in principle to the idea in September. But since the latest talks in November, North Korea has refused to negotiate after U.S. action forced a bank in Macau to freeze North Korean accounts that were allegedly derived from the counterfeiting of American currency and narcotics trafficking.
The 15-member Security Council adjourned without taking action to allow time for consultations.
"We hope that the response of the council is swift, strong and resolute," Kenzo Oshima, Japan's U.N. envoy, said at the United Nations.
The last time North Korea tested a Taepodong missile was in 1998, when it fired one across Japan into the Pacific Ocean. That launch also was marred with problems.
"In eight years, they didn't make any progress," said Yan Xuetong, director of the Strategic Research Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
"The launches will create more pressure on China than on anyone else," Yan said.
Outsiders said Beijing might be growing weary of Pyongyang's attempts to ratchet up tensions even as it provides its neighbor with lifelines of energy and food.
"China will find it more costly to insulate North Korea," said Ron Huisken, an East Asian defense analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Still unclear is whether China knew of the launchings ahead of time and how it will deal with growing pressure from Washington and Tokyo to take action.
"These questions are too sensitive for me to answer. I can only say that the Chinese government will mediate more vigorously," said Li Dunqiu, director of the Korean Peninsula Research Center of the State Council Development and Research Center, a Beijing state-run think tank.
Japan took unilateral actions against North Korea. It barred the entry of a North Korean ferry into Niigata, a port city where the vessel makes a near-monthly stop. Japan also barred North Korean officials, ship crews and charter flights from entering the country.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said Japan might also curb hard currency remittances by ethnic Koreans residing in Japan to their families in North Korea.
South Korea and China appealed for calm.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said China was seriously concerned, but suggested that the possible U.S. and Japanese responses to the test-firings was as worrisome as what North Korea might do next.
"We hope that all sides will maintain calm and restraint and do things conducive to the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia and do not take any further steps that will add to tensions and further complicate the situation," Liu said.
(Landay reported from Washington and Johnson reported from Shenzhen, China. McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Emi Doi contributed from Tokyo; William Douglas contributed from Washington.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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