updated 7/11/2006 10:22:31 PM ET 2006-07-12T02:22:31

China’s president on Tuesday urged North Korea to refrain from increasing tensions over its nuclear program and to return to disarmament talks as diplomats worked to forestall U.N. sanctions against the regime.

America’s top nuclear envoy made an unscheduled trip to China, saying efforts to resolve the crisis have reached a crucial point. A delegation from North Korea also came to Beijing.

China’s Foreign Ministry criticized a Japanese proposal that demands the North stop developing, testing and selling ballistic missiles as “an overreaction.”

Cabinet-level talks between North and South Korea, meanwhile, kicked off with the South saying Pyongyang’s missile tests were destabilizing the region.

Chinese President Hu Jintao told the visiting vice president of the North’s parliament, Yang Hyong Sop: “We are against any actions that will aggravate the situation. We hope that relevant parties will do more things conducive to the peace and stability of the peninsula,” according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Hu's firm warning
Hu said Beijing is “seriously concerned” and called for progress in stalled six-nation talks over the North’s nuclear program.

The warning by Hu, who rarely speaks publicly about North Korea, represented an unusually firm stance by Beijing and appeared to reflect growing frustration with its ally.

Pyongyang ignited the furor a week ago by test-firing seven missiles, including a long-range Taepodong-2 potentially capable of hitting the United States. The weapons, which landed in the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, created a major new challenge to international efforts to defuse the North’s nuclear threat.

The tough talk from Hu follows an agreement by U.N. Security Council members to delay a vote on a Japanese proposal to sanction the North over the missile tests. The extra time was allowed to give China, the isolated regime’s main ally and aid donor, a chance to persuade Pyongyang to refrain from more launches. China has told other Security Council members it would veto this Japanese-proposed resolution if it comes to a vote, U.N. diplomats said Tuesday.

China: Japan overreacting
Earlier in the day, China said Tuesday that a Japan-sponsored U.N. resolution to slap sanctions on North Korea over its missile tests was an over-reaction that would split the Security Council.

The statement came as a top U.S. envoy flew into Beijing, seeking a briefing on China’s urgent efforts to resolve the crisis by diplomatic means.

The U.N. Security Council delayed a vote overnight on the resolution to impose sanctions on the isolated state to allow time for a high-level Chinese delegation to talk to Pyongyang.

“The Chinese side thinks the concerned draft resolution is an over-reaction. If approved, it will aggravate contradictions and increase tension,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a news conference.

“It will harm peace and stability in the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asian region and hurt efforts to resume six-party talks as well as lead to the U.N. Security Council splitting.”

Senior U.S. diplomat Christopher Hill, Washington’s top man on North Korea, arrived back in the Chinese capital on Tuesday.

“I was asked to come back to Beijing to meet with the Chinese authorities and talk to them about how their diplomatic effort is doing in Pyongyang,” Hill told reporters at Beijing airport.

“As you know the vote in the Security Council has been postponed while the Chinese endeavor to engage with the DPRK (North Korea). So I want to be close to that process. So I hope to have some meetings this afternoon to talk to the Chinese to see how they see that going ... Obviously we are in a rather crucial period.”

Talks in Pyongyang
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei was still in North Korea, Jiang said, contradicting earlier Korean media reports that he had returned home. Vice Premier Hui Liangyu, who began a six-day visit to North Korea on Monday, was also still there.

Senior North Korean official Yang Hyong Sop arrived in Beijing, meanwhile, for a visit that would include a meeting with China's Hu, Xinhua news agency said.

A State Department official said on Sunday Washington believed it had the backing in the 15-member council Tuesday it intended to call for a vote on the binding resolution eventually. “There is no change in our basic stance,” Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters.

Foreign Minister Taro Aso said separately that Japan wanted to see a decision on the resolution before the July 15-17 Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, and that the minimum content would be a ban on providing missile technology to North Korea.

China’s U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, told reporters on Monday that a resolution branding North Korea a threat to international peace and security “could be used by member states to take actions which could make the situation even worse.”

Asked if he meant military force, Wang said: “certainly.”

China’s draft contains nearly all the elements of Japan’s rival resolution but is not legally binding. The Japanese resolution invokes Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which makes it mandatory for all U.N. members and in certain circumstances lays the groundwork for military force.

Beijing in hot seat
Beijing is now in the hot seat as the world watches to see whether it can use its influence with North Korea to rein in its prickly neighbor’s missile and nuclear arms programs.

In another sign of the search for a diplomatic solution, South Korea planned to focus on the missile launch and the North’s nuclear programs in North-South ministerial talks originally due to concentrate on economic matters.

The talks were due to open later on Tuesday in the southern port city of Pusan.

Japan’s ties with both South Korea and China have been chilly since Koizumi took office in 2001 and began visits to a war shrine his critics see as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.

The missile tests have notably widened the rift between Seoul and Tokyo. On Tuesday South Korea’s presidential office called remarks by Japanese leaders on the crisis reckless and arrogant.

In 1998, North Korea launched a long-range missile which flew over Japan before splashing into the sea, prompting Tokyo to seek a stern response at the United Nations.

Wednesday’s test-firing of no fewer than seven missiles has rekindled a debate in Japan over whether Tokyo should develop the capability to make pre-emptive strikes and whether these would violate its post-World War Two pacifist constitution.

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