A U.S. envoy expressed support for China's proposal to hold informal six-nation talks on the North Korean nuclear threat and offered to meet bilaterally with the North on the sidelines of those discussions.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill was in Seoul as part of a regional tour to coordinate the international response to the North's test-firing Wednesday of seven missiles. The tests caused international outrage but also division over whether North Korea should be punished.
Over Chinese and Russian objections, Japan on Friday proposed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would impose sanctions on North Korea and order the communist regime to stop developing ballistic missiles.
Backed by the United States, Britain and France, the new resolution came as President Bush expressed frustration with the slow pace of diplomacy and urged world leaders to send Pyongyang a strong message condemning the missile tests, staged in defiance of international warnings.
"What matters most of all is for Kim Jong Il to see the world speak with one voice," Bush said Friday during a trip to Chicago. "That's the purpose, really."
Beijing has floated the idea of an informal meeting between members of the six-party nuclear talks — the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States. Pyongyang has for months refused to attend formal negotiations, protesting U.S. financial restrictions imposed over the North's alleged counterfeiting, money-laundering and other illegal practices.
"As many of you know, the Chinese have talked about putting together a six-party informal, and we both support that and we think that all countries are prepared to come to that informal meeting," Hill told reporters after meeting with Chun Young-woo, South Korea's top nuclear negotiator.
Asked about the possibility of a bilateral meeting with the North, he said: "Within the informal six-party talks, yes, I can."
"I just can't do it when they are boycotting the six-party talks."
But Hill rejected North Korea's demand that the U.S. drop restrictions imposed on a Macau bank for allegedly aiding the North's illicit activities. The U.S. has argued that the nuclear talks and financial restrictions are separate issues and should not be linked.
"This is not a time for so-called gestures of that kind," Hill said in response to the North Korean demand. "We have a country that has fired off missiles in a truly reckless way that affects ... regional security."
The North has defended its right to test missiles and said the launches could continue.
Japan urged the United Nations to vote soon on the Security Council resolution and warned it would not compromise on its stern wording. The measure would call for other countries to "take those steps necessary" to keep the North from acquiring items that could be used for its missile program.
"Japan will not give in. It definitely must be a resolution containing sanctions," Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso was quoted by Kyodo News agency as saying during a speech in Osaka on Saturday. Japan "will not back off from the resolution. We will hold on until the end."
Japanese Senior Vice Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki said Security Council members were privately "having positive discussions" about the resolution and were chipping away at Russian and Chinese doubts. Supporters decided at a meeting Friday not to call for a vote over the weekend after some council members asked for more time to consider the resolution.
"It is strongly expected that the Security Council will put it to vote as soon as possible," Shiozaki told a news conference in Tokyo. "The timing is very important."
China, a traditional ally of North Korea, has been reluctant to impose sanctions on Pyongyang. But Japan's Yomiuri newspaper reported Saturday that Beijing appeared to have clamped down on the flow of industrial materials to North Korea in a sign of disenchantment with the missile tests.
In a report from the Chinese city of Dandong on the North Korean border, the newspaper said the normally steady cross-border stream of supply trucks from China had all but stopped as of Friday. The paper quoted a trader on the Chinese side as saying traffic had plummeted after the missile tests.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency, however, cited business people in China as saying that any slowdown in trade in the past couple of days was likely due to seasonal factors, not political ones.
South Korea, which has worked for warmer ties with Pyongyang since a 2000 North-South summit, has withheld aid shipments and rejected a Northern request for military talks. At the same time it is planning Cabinet-level meetings with the communist country next week.
Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok said Seoul would hold off sending 500,000 tons of rice and 100,000 tons of fertilizer to North Korea.