SEOUL — U.S. and Asian officials are trying to use the atmosphere of crisis generated by North Korea's missile tests as the impetus for a fresh diplomatic push on the North's weapons, according to participants in meetings here this weekend.
The push came as the North adopted an increasingly defiant tone, saying that U.N. sanctions would be tantamount to war.
Referring to a rare statement attributed directly to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, his nation's radio on Sunday broadcast an editorial saying that Kim had announced a "heroic position" in which he "promised to answer to an enemy's retaliation with retaliation and to an all-out war with an all-out war."
In an emergency sweep through the region in the wake of the missile launches, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said he was hoping to reconvene six-nation talks on denuclearization that have been stalled since September.
If North Korea boycotts a formal meeting, Hill said, the six countries might meet informally or there might be a meeting of the remaining five -- the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
"Six is better than five. Five is better than none," said Hill in an interview on Sunday with a small group of Western reporters.
"If they [the North Koreans] want to negotiate, we are prepared to do so within the six-party process," Hill said. "If they are not interested, we will do our best to defend ourselves and secondly to keep them very isolated."
Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns blitzed Sunday morning talk shows in the U.S., urging China to step up pressure on North Korea to return to the talks. If Kim remained defiant, Burns warned, Washington and its allies might push as early as this week for the United Nations to impose harsh sanctions.
"We hope that China is going to bring some pressure and influence to bear to convince the North Koreans that they are entirely isolated in the world," Burns said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "The North Koreans have to come back to the six-party talks."
The fresh diplomatic push appears to be principally an effort by China and South Korea, along with the United States, to prevent the missile launches from escalating into a larger confrontation. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called senior Chinese officials Saturday, and Chinese leaders hurriedly sent a delegation to Pyongyang this weekend for talks.
Both China and South Korea are particularly hesitant to go along with a Japanese-led effort before the U.N. to get sanctions enacted against North Korea.
Seoul intends to hold Cabinet-level meetings with North Korea beginning Tuesday in the South Korean port of Busan and will push for the renewed talks.
"We have to turn the dynamic created by the [missile tests] into a force for diplomacy," said South Korea's top nuclear negotiator, Chun Young-woo, after a meeting with Hill on Saturday.
In the days leading up to last week's missile launches, Beijing hastily tried to organize a meeting of the six nations in the Chinese city of Shenyang. A U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said that the Chinese had the impression that North Korea "was signed up" to attend and were surprised when it instead went ahead with the seven missile launches.
The official said that Kim might have been responding to pressure by hard-liners from within his military not to back down from the missile launches.
China's short-term goal is to get North Korea back to the six-party talks, a move that Pyongyang might accept to defuse the international backlash from its missile launches, said Robert J. Einhorn, a former State Department official who negotiated with North Korea on nuclear proliferation issues during the Clinton administration.
"Clearly, China has the leverage. It supplies more than half of North Korea's food and fuel, but China doesn't want to press the North Koreans to the breaking point," he said. "Nonetheless, the Bush administration is right to call on China to do more, because if anyone is to bring North Korea to its senses, it's the Chinese."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said China's decision whether to support strong U.N. sanctions against North Korea was a "defining issue" in Sino-U.S. relations.
"If they continue to vacillate, as they have all last week in the United Nations, then there are consequences in our relationship," McCain said on "Face the Nation."
But some senior Democrats suggested that the U.S. might want to consider bilateral talks with North Korea, a tactic the Bush administration has resisted.
"We need to get away from this idea that diplomacy is a sign of weakness," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who serves on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, told the same program.
A North Korean diplomat in New York, Han Sung Ryol, said in an interview published in Seoul on Saturday that North Korea would not return to talks until the U.S. released $24 million held in a bank in the Chinese city of Macao that is being audited by the Treasury Department. Hill rejected those demands.
Hill is to meet in Tokyo today with Japanese officials who are leading the drive for tougher economic measures against North Korea.
Times staff writers T. Christian Miller and Jim Puzzanghera in Washington contributed to this report.