SHENZHEN, China – China's premier urged North Korea on Wednesday to desist from firing a long-range missile, while South Korea called on the United States to talk directly with North Korea to forestall a launch.
Premier Wen Jiabao said China was paying close attention to information that North Korea may be preparing a test-launch and urged Pyongyang to avoid any actions that would aggravate regional tensions and further derail long-stalled negotiations on the North's nuclear fuel programs.
"We hope that the various parties will proceed from the greater interest of maintaining stability on the Korean Peninsula and refrain from taking measures that will worsen the situation," Wen said at a joint news conference with visiting Australian Prime Minister John Howard.
As North Korea's closest ally and a critical provider of fuel and other economic assistance, China carries unusual weight in diplomacy to engage the isolated government.
Wen's remarks Wednesday were the first time the senior Chinese leadership acknowledged concerns about a possible missile launch in the two weeks since intelligence reports detected North Korean preparations.
"No country in the world has a greater influence on North Korea than China has," said Howard, in Shenzhen to inaugurate deliveries of Australian natural gas and discuss a free-trade agreement with Wen.
According to intelligence reports, the missile, a Taepodong-2, was being fueled at a launch pad on North Korea's northeastern coast. A U.S. government estimate puts the range of the Taepodong-2 missile at between 5,000 and 7,500 miles, making it capable of reaching the United States.
Wen did not say what actions China was taking to pressure Pyongyang. And a senior South Korean official took a different tack, urging Washington to talk directly with Pyongyang — a demand a North Korean diplomat has hinted at but that the Bush administration has refused.
"Our government has the view that the U.S. administration should also be more actively involved in discussions," South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok said in a speech reported by the Yonhap news agency. "We will continue to push for this matter. ... The most important thing is to stop North Korea from firing a missile."
Wen's and Lee's remarks come a day after the Chinese and South Korean foreign ministers conferred in Beijing on the missile issue. The two countries, both North Korean neighbors, have drawn closer in recent years, joined by burgeoning economic ties they don't want to see disrupted by regional crises.
Beijing and Seoul have increasingly struck an evenhanded approach, trying to coax the North into negotiations while encouraging the Bush administration not to take actions that could worsen the situation.
Wen echoed this strategy, saying a resumption of the six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear programs — which also include the U.S., Russia, South Korea and Japan — offered the best opportunity for regional stability. He suggested both North Korea and the United States need to moderate their positions to get the talks back on track.
"We still believe that the six-party talks are the only way to a peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula," Wen said. "So China will work actively on the concerns of the various parties on the matter so that we can resume negotiations as soon as possible and bring about a peaceful solution to the nuclear issue."
Despite the preference for a peaceful solution, the Japanese Defense Minister Fukushiro Nukaga said Tokyo was better prepared to deal with a North Korean missile launch than in 1998 when Pyongyang fired a missile over northern Japan into the Pacific Ocean.
Japan has dispatched Aegis-equipped warships and reconnaissance planes to monitor the situation, and is coordinating intelligence gathering with the United States, Nukaga said in Tokyo.
He acknowledged, however, that Japan does not have the capability to shoot down the missile.