BEIJING: China has recently expressed its unwillingness to impose economic sanctions on North Korea, a move that has been strongly favoured by Washington as a way to pressure Pyongyang back to six-nation talks aimed at halting its nuclear weapons programme.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in a recent statement that normal diplomatic relations between China and North Korea should not be linked to nuclear issues and that politics and economics should be kept separate.

“We stand for resolving the issue through dialogue. We are not in favour of exerting pressure or imposing sanctions,” Liu said at a briefing at the Foreign Ministry. “We believe such measures are not necessarily effective.”

The Bush administration had stepped up pressure on China in recent weeks to use whatever influence it has over the isolated Stalinist state to resume the negotiations. The issue became more urgent after spy satellite photos reportedly showed possible evidence that North Korea was preparing for its first nuclear weapons test, including digging a large hole at a potential test site.

Beijing’s position is in line with long-standing policy in China, South Korea and, until recently, Japan. Many North Asia security experts say it’s far more effective to work through diplomatic channels in this part of the world and allow top officials to save face, rather than publicly challenging Pyongyang’s leadership and risking a backlash.

China is also concerned that tough sanctions could lead to an economic meltdown in North Korea, prompting tens of thousands of desperate refugees to surge across the border into China. In addition, Beijing retains a certain dwindling loyalty toward Pyongyang.

“The US is trying to push China into the front line against North Korea, but China has its own concerns,” said Li Dunqiu, an analyst with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “For China, it’s very important to maintain economic, political and social stability inside North Korea and on the Korean peninsula as a whole.” This is at odds with the view from Washington, which has grown increasingly frustrated with North Korea’s unwillingness to return to the bargaining table. The administration has apparently concluded it has little to lose by taking a harder line.

US spy photos reportedly show a large hole being dug and filled in Kilju, in the northeastern part of the country, along with the construction of a reviewing stand. On Tuesday, Liu declined to address the issue of a possible North Korean test, saying, “I have not had evidence.” US intelligence on North Korea has met with some skepticism. South Korean officials in recent days have been increasingly critical of reports from Washington about the likelihood of a nuclear test by the North. An unnamed South Korean official was quoted in that country’s press on Wednesday complaining that US leaks about preparations for a test near Kilju were causing unnecessary concern.

In the English-language Korea Times, he said “we detected some unusual activity like the construction of villas, tunneling and ... trucks. But we haven’t found moves so far that could be linked with a nuclear test.”

Pyongyang has, however, accused the United States of “making a fuss ... saying that our republic may conduct an underground nuclear test in June,” but it stopped short of denying the US reports. Other participants in the six-party talks besides the United States, North Korea and China are South Korea, Japan and Russia.

The Washington Post reported last week that China, host of the talks, rejected a US request that it cut off oil supplies to Pyongyang pending resumption of the negotiations, which broke off last summer. Pyongyang has sent conflicting signals about its willingness to talk. On Saturday, it said it was not holding out for direct talks with the US. But Tuesday, in the official Rodong Shinmun newspaper, it called President Bush “the world’s worst fascist dictator,” in an editorial headlined “We Will Not Deal With a Bunch of Hooligans.” —Dawn/LAT-WP News Service