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China Rules Out Military Action, But Not Sanctions, Against North Korea

China has long opposed sanctions against North Korea, but in the wake of North Korea's claimed nuclear test, Beijing now indicates it might support U.N. sanctions after all. However, a Chinese official says military action against North Korea is "unimaginable."

China on Tuesday appeared to ratchet up the pressure on North Korea, a day after issuing an unusually stern condemnation of Pyongyang's claim to have carried out a nuclear test.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters at a regular briefing that Beijing wants the United Nations Security Council to take steps to stop the North from pursuing its nuclear ambitions.

"The United Nations Security Council should take appropriate action," he said. "We are still consulting with other countries as to what that action should be."

Until now, Chinese officials have firmly opposed any kind of sanctions against the North. Liu's remarks appear to reflect deep anger at North Korea for having ignored Beijing's repeated warnings not to carry out a nuclear test.

China was widely believed to have more influence than any other nation with its reclusive and impoverished communist neighbor, because it is the North's main supplier of grain and fuel. Pyongyang's claim to have conducted the test, however, indicates that China's influence is limited.

The Chinese do not seem to have given up all hope of reasoning with the North Koreans. A South Korean official, returning to Seoul from a two-day trip to Beijing, was quoted by the Yonhap news agency Tuesday as saying China is planning to send a high-level envoy to Pyongyang. The official was quoted as saying he was told the envoy would try to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Despite China's angry words on Monday and Tuesday, the leadership has so far stopped short of threatening to cut off aid and trade links with Pyongyang.

And, asked what Beijing thought of the possibility of military action against the North, the foreign ministry spokesman called such a course of action "unimaginable."

Instead, China hopes to give dialogue another chance, and on Tuesday called on North Korea to return to six-nation negotiations on its nuclear weapons programs.

Those talks also include Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. North Korea has boycotted the talks for a year, to protest sanctions that Washington says it imposed to halt counterfeiting and money-laundering by the North. Many analysts have said that if Pyongyang's claim of a nuclear test is confirmed, the talks will effectively be dead.

The Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, on Tuesday said that President Hu Jintao had a telephone conversation with President Bush after the North Korean test was announced.

Mr. Bush on Monday said he had spoken with the leaders of the United States' partners in the six-party talks, and all had agreed that North Korea's actions were a threat to international peace and security.