US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cast doubt yesterday on reports that North Korea had pledged to stop nuclear tests and had apologized for the the test on Oct 9, saying it seemed bent instead on escalating the crisis.
After arriving in Moscow yesterday, Rice went straight into talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and was also expected to meet President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.
News reports had raised hopes that tension was easing on Friday by saying North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had told China's special envoy Tang Jiaxuan (
But Rice met Tang in person in Beijing on Friday and then told reporters travelling onwards to Moscow with her that he had given no sign China had achieved such a diplomatic breakthrough.
"Tang did not tell me that Kim Jong-il either apologized for the test or said that he would not ever test again," she said.
Russia is the last stop on Rice's five-day trip, aimed at shoring up support for UN economic and weapons sanctions imposed on Pyongyang a week ago to punish it for conducting an underground nuclear test on Oct. 9.
She played down news reports that Kim had told Beijing he "regretted" the test, which was condemned internationally, including by China, the North's closest ally and economic lifeline.
"The Chinese did not, in a fairly thorough briefing to me, say anything about an apology," she said. "The North Koreans, I think, would like to see an escalation of the tension."
She also questioned whether Pyongyang intended to return to six-party talks, which have been stalled for nearly a year.
Kim Kye-gwan, North Korea's top nuclear negotiator, earlier told US television Pyongyang hoped to return to the table.
North Korea boycotts the talks because Washington, accusing it of counterfeiting money, is imposing restrictions on its external financing. Rice said these would remain in force.
She said before leaving China that North Korea's tone was still belligerent.
Rice's visits to Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing were overshadowed by speculation that the unpredictable communist state would conduct a second nuclear test.
On Friday, reports that Kim had told Tang no more nuclear tests were planned had raised hopes that the crisis was cooling.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted a diplomatic source as saying: "I understand he [Kim] expressed clearly there was no plan to conduct nuclear tests."
Rice won few commitments from China and South Korea on implementing the restrictions on their impoverished neighbor.
China, a traditional ally of North Korea, is seen as having the greatest potential leverage over Pyongyang, but it also fears instability and a potential wave of refugees should sanctions against North Korea prompt its collapse.
It is opposed to North Korean ships being stopped and inspected on the high seas, one measure authorized by the UN resolution, believing it could provoke Pyongyang into stronger action.
The Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun reported yesterday that China had begun restricting some of its exports to North Korea, including oil and home appliances.
But North Korea, underlining its defiance, said more than 100,000 people had rallied in the main square of Pyongyang on Friday to hail the nuclear test.
"The nuclear test was an exercise of the independent and legitimate right of the DPRK [North Korea] as a sovereign state," its official KCNA news agency quoted Choe Thae-bok, a senior member of the Workers' Party of Korea, as saying.