BEIJING – China gave its first full public account Tuesday of its mission to North Korea, saying it got no apology from top leader Kim Jong-Il for the atomic explosion but did receive assurances there were no plans for a second nuclear test.
The North's reclusive leader also expressed a willingness to return to six-nation talks over its nuclear program if financial restrictions levied by the U.S. are first resolved, said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao.
Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan met with Kim last week during a trip to Pyongyang with Beijing's top nuclear envoy and vice foreign minister that analysts and diplomats had called a critical opportunity to assess the North's intentions.
The meeting resulted in no breakthroughs, but China cast the discussions in a positive light.
Tang was told during meetings with Kim and other North Korean officials that the regime has no plans currently to carry out a second nuclear test, Liu said. "But if it faces pressure, North Korea reserves the right to take further actions," he added, citing Tang.
A second nuclear test has been widely believed to be a possibility. Earlier this month, U.S. media reported that Pyongyang may be preparing for another blast, citing suspicious activity at a suspected test site in the country's northeast.
But on Tuesday, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported the U.S. military had not detected signs of preparations for a second atomic test.
Despite the apparently conciliatory tone of the Pyongyang meeting, Liu said Kim did not apologize for his regime's nuclear test, as some South Korean media had reported.
"These reports are certainly not accurate," Liu said. "We haven't heard any information that Kim Jong Il apologized for the test."
North Korean officials told the Chinese envoy Pyongyang was willing to return to international negotiations on its nuclear program but wants "certain questions, including the matter of U.S. financial sanctions against it, resolved first," Liu said at a regular press briefing.
The U.S. has sought to cut off the North's access to international banking as punishment for alleged counterfeiting of U.S. dollars and other illicit activity. Pyongyang has denied the charges and boycotted six-nation talks on its nuclear program until the U.S. ends the crackdown.
"All countries involved in the six-party talks believe the talks should be resumed but of course the parties do not all agree on how," Liu said, referring to the talks Beijing has hosted since 2003. They include China, the two Koreas, the United States, Russia and Japan.
"Consultations are required to find a way acceptable to all," he said.
The North Koreans also said countries should not "willfully interpret or expand the sanctions" imposed by the United Nations because of the test, according to Liu.
The United States and Japan are among countries that have imposed additional sanctions on the North. Liu said he had no information to indicate that China had already, or was considering, cutting its food and energy assistance to North Korea.
Beijing, as the North's main ally and source of aid, has the greatest leverage over the regime. However, China has been reluctant to pressure the North, in part out of fear that a collapse of social order there would result in a flood of refugees over their shared border.
Instead, it has been involved in a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at lessening tensions and preventing the crisis from escalating since Pyongyang announced its Oct. 9 nuclear test.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Beijing last week and Ban Ki-moon, the next U.N. secretary-general and South Korea's foreign minister, was scheduled to arrive in Beijing on Friday to discuss the standoff with top Chinese leaders.
Ban said he plans to use his new position as U.N. chief, which he'll assume at the beginning of next year, to seek a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue. He also said Seoul fully backs the U.N. sanctions imposed on the North as punishment for the nuclear test.
South Korea has yet to outline any specific action it plans to take to enforce the sanctions. The U.S. has urged the South to join an anti-proliferation initiative, and to take steps for more accountability in joint economic projects with the North.
Ban said Seoul was still reviewing its policies "to bring them closer in line" with the U.N. measures.
South Korea's unification minister Lee Jong-seok, who is in charge of relations with North Korea, offered to resign on Tuesday to take responsibility for the North's nuclear test, the presidential office said Wednesday. Lee has been a strong supporter of engagement with North Korea, and his critics accuse him of being pro-Pyongyang.