WASHINGTON—The Bush administration, under fire for policies that have failed to stop North Korea from advancing its nuclear weapons arsenal, on Tuesday ruled out direct talks with Pyongyang in the aftermath of its apparent nuclear test.
Instead, the United States and other world powers began discussing tough U.N. sanctions on North Korea that would authorize inspection of cargo going to or coming from the country to halt weapons-related transfers.
In a significant development, China, which is North Korea's principal ally, said for the first time that it would agree to sanctions on the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
"I think there has to be some punitive actions," said Wang Guangya, China's ambassador to the United Nations. "We need to have a firm, constructive, appropriate but prudent response to North Korea's nuclear threat," he said, without being more specific.
Early Wednesday, Japan said it had detected new seismic tremors from North Korea, and the state NHK television network reported that government officials believe they may have been triggered by a second North Korean nuclear test.
But South Korean officials told the semi-official Yonhap news agency that South Korea had detected no new seismic activity in the north, and Japan's Kyodo news service reported that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a parliamentary panel that he could not confirm the NHK report.
A strong earthquake shook northern Japan early Wednesday, but it was unclear if that quake might have been responsible for reports of a second nuclear test.
China's agreement to sanctions on North Korea would be a major victory in efforts by the United States and Japan to punish Kim's government for its nuclear ambitions.
China, which has led diplomatic efforts to engage Pyongyang, was deeply embarrassed by North Korea's nuclear test on Monday. But Beijing is wary of destabilizing North Korea because a collapse of the regime could flood China with millions of extremely poor refugees. It's unclear how far it will go in curtailing crucial food and energy supplies or other trade.
"I think they're going to do some sanctions that will sting, but not ultimately paralyze North Korea. The only thing they worry more about than a nuclear weapon is the collapse of North Korea," said Kurt Campbell, a former top Pentagon official on Asia policy who's now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a national-security research center.
Officials from the United States and other Western governments privately echoed that analysis.
North Korea's claimed nuclear test—U.S. intelligence agencies still hadn't confirmed it Tuesday—has brought wide condemnation and given new impetus to the U.S. drive for further sanctions.
But the White House also found itself on the defensive Tuesday against critics who said President Bush's policy of refusing to engage North Korea in direct, one-on-one talks had backfired.
Bush said in May 2003 that the United States wouldn't tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea. Since that time, Pyongyang is thought to have expanded its stockpile of nuclear weapons, has broken a self-imposed moratorium on test-firing ballistic missiles and on Monday apparently conducted its first underground nuclear-weapons test.
Campbell, who served during the Clinton administration, gave the Bush administration high marks for its muscular response to the crisis this week. But he said the administration should have tried a different approach earlier.
"The biggest problem has been a reluctance to engage (North Korea) diplomatically," he said. The administration, he said, seems to "worry that by talking to them at a very high level, that we are somehow blessing . . . a reprehensible regime."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other Bush aides ruled out direct talks, arguing that the Clinton administration had tried it and that it failed.
"The United States tried direct dialogue with the North Koreans in the `90s. And that resulted in the North Koreans signing on to agreements that they then didn't keep," Rice said in an interview on CNN.
She referred to a 1994 deal known as the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea's known nuclear program, involving plutonium, was frozen. The United States charges that Pyongyang cheated on the deal by pursuing a second, covert program based on uranium enrichment.
Rice argued that the United States is now in a stronger position to deal with North Korea because Japan, South Korea and, especially, China are prepared to take united action against the country.
The Bush administration has been riven by internal disputes over dealing with North Korea almost from the moment it took office.
Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell announced in 2001 that Bush would continue Clinton's policy of talking to the North Koreans, but an unhappy White House forced him to retract the remarks.
Even today, Vice President Dick Cheney and his allies in government are thought to favor putting so much pressure on Kim's regime that it collapses.
Many State Department experts argue that the tough approach plays right into Kim's hands and further isolation is unlikely to matter to the world's most isolated country.
The U.S.-proposed sanctions would bar imports and exports of arms, nuclear- and missile-related material and luxury goods to North Korea and would authorize inspections of inbound and outbound cargo by third countries.
Japan, which has historical enmity with North Korea, has proposed even tougher measures, including broad trade sanctions, refusing to allow North Korean ships and planes to enter other countries and banning travel by top North Korean government officials.
China is unlikely to go that far. China and North Korea have had close relations as communist neighbors, and Kim has visited China to learn about its economic reforms.
Intelligence officials said Tuesday that they were still analyzing the underground blast that occurred Monday morning local time in North Korea.
U.S. Air Force monitoring aircraft haven't yet picked up the signs of radiation usually associated with such a test. The blast itself is thought to have had less than a kiloton of force, perhaps significantly less, leading experts to question whether the test was only partially successful.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): NKOREA
Need to map