BEIJING - China appeared to shy away Thursday from backing U.S. efforts to impose a travel ban and financial sanctions on North Korea for its claimed nuclear test, saying any U.N. action should focus on bringing its communist neighbor back to talks.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said North Korea should understand it had made a mistake but "punishment should not be the purpose" of any U.N. response.
U.N. action "should be conducive to the de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula ... and the resumption of the talks," he told reporters. "It's necessary to express clearly to North Korea that ... the international community is opposed to this nuclear test."
The United States has circulated a new U.N. Security Council resolution that seeks to ban travel by people involved in North Korea's weapons program but softens some other measures to win Russian and Chinese support. North Korea warned it would consider increased U.S. pressure an act of war and take unspecified countermeasures.
China's response to the crisis has been closely watched because it is considered to have the most leverage with the unpredictable, reclusive North Korean regime. China, a veto-wielding Security Council member, is the North's top provider of desperately needed energy and economic aid.
Chinese officials have refused to say publicly what consequences they believe North Korea should face for its claimed nuclear test, although its U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, agreed earlier this week that the Security Council must impose "punitive actions."
Japan is imposing its own new sanctions against North Korea. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party approved several harsh measures Thursday, including limits on imports and a ban on all North Korean ships in Japanese waters.
The latest U.S. proposal, obtained by The Associated Press Wednesday night, dropped Japanese demands to prohibit North Koreans ships from entering any port, and North Korean aircraft from taking off or landing in any country. These sanctions would likely face strong Russian and Chinese opposition.
The resolution would still require countries to freeze all assets related to North Korea's weapons and missile programs. But a call to freeze assets from other illicit activities such as "counterfeiting, money-laundering or narcotics" was dropped. So was a call to prevent "any abuses of the international financial system" that could contribute to the transfer or development of banned weapons.
The North will consider increased U.S. pressure "a declaration of war," RI Kong Son, vice spokesman for North Korea's Foreign Ministry, said in an interview with AP Television News in Pyongyang. He said North Korea would take unspecified "physical countermeasures."
Song Il Ho, a North Korean envoy to Japan, gave a similar warning to Tokyo. "We will take strong countermeasures," he told Kyoto News Agency.
Since Pyongyang announced it exploded its first atomic bomb Monday, there have been daily South Korean and Japanese news reports that the North is preparing another test.
On Thursday, the South Korean newspaper Munhwa Ilbo quoted an unidentified source familiar with North Korean affairs as saying a second test would occur in two or three days.
South Korea's National Intelligence Service could not immediately be reached for comment.
South Korean scientists have been scrambling for signs of radioactivity that would confirm Monday's underground test. Han Seung-jae, an official at the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety, said experts were still unsure the North had tested a nuclear device.
"So far, we have not detected any abnormal level of radioactivity" in South Korea, he said.
Japanese military planes have also been monitoring for radioactivity in the atmosphere but have reported no abnormal readings.
North Korea has been demanding direct talks with the United States, but President Bush refused to agree to such a meeting in a news conference Wednesday. He argued that Pyongyang would be more likely to listen to the protests of many nations.
Bush added that the U.S. was ready to defend its allies in the region, but that it would also try to use diplomacy to deal with North Korea.
"I believe the commander in chief must try all diplomatic measures before we commit our military," he said.