SEOUL/BEIJING China and North Korea reached consensus on the Korean peninsula crisis after "candid" talks, Chinese state media reported, which analysts said suggested Pyongyang likely agreed not to inflame the situation.
The meeting came as Beijing and Washington continued to trade barbs over how best to deal with the spike in tension on the divided peninsula, with China rejecting U.S. pressure to take its impoverished ally to task over last month's artillery attack on the South.
China's Xinhua news agency said State Councilor Dai Bingguo met the isolated North's ailing leader Kim Jong-il for talks in the Pyongyang and "the two sides reached consensus on bilateral relations and the situation on the Korean peninsula after candid and in-depth talks."
North Korea's KCNA news agency said the talks were "held over the issue of boosting the friendly and cooperative relations between the two countries and a series of issues of mutual concern."
"It's difficult to expect much in the consensus more than a general agreement on the need to resolve the situation ... in a peaceful manner and through dialogue, and that they can't have tensions escalating," said Park Young-ho of the Korea Institute of National Unification.
Neither news agency gave any further details.
"It is hard to say what the consensus Xinhua mentioned really is, but from the words 'in-depth' and 'candid', I think that Kim Jong-il must have had a good attitude toward the meeting," said Wang Dong of the School of International Studies at Peking University.
"Dai may have gotten some kind of verbal promise from North Korea that there will be no escalation from its side, as China may have told Kim Jong-il to make an expression of goodwill to bring the other four countries back to the six-party talks table," Wang said.
The talks on Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program comprise the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States but have been on hold for about two years.
The North wants to resume the talks, but Washington and Seoul have said they will only consider a return when Pyongyang shows it is sincere about denuclearization.
BEIJING VS WASHINGTON
The United States has repeatedly called on Beijing to bring its ally to heel after the North bombarded a South Korean island last month, killing four people, and revealed advances to its nuclear program opening another route to make an atomic bomb.
Earlier on Thursday, the U.S. military chief criticized Beijing for enabling its ally Pyongyang's "reckless behavior," prompting a sharp rebuke from Beijing.
"I would like to question that person who has accused China as to what he has done for maintaining peace and stability in the region," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters in Beijing. "Military threats are not the solution. That will only worsen regional tensions."
The South has vowed to hit back hard against its neighbor if Pyongyang orders a repeat of last month's attack, bolstering its defenses in the disputed West Sea area and amending military rules of engagement to permit the use of fighter jets and bombs.
"I actually believe that because these provocations continue, and seemingly at a more frequent interval, that the danger is going up and that steps must be taken to ensure that they stop," Mullen said.
He also said that the United States wants sustainable military ties with China, instead of on-and-off contact. At the same time, Beijing said it had sent General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, to the United States for military-to-military talks.
Mullen justified staging joint military exercises with South Korea off the west coast of the peninsula, saying the Yellow Sea is free waters where the U.S. military has operated and will continue to do so.
A U.S. military official said Washington was encouraging Seoul to think strategically and in the long-term rather than focusing on tit-for-tat retaliation.
"Any actions that are taken -- actions, reactions -- have to be done very carefully to make sure that we don't escalate, that they are proportional, and at the same time send a very strong signal that the provocations must cease," Mullen said.
Analysts say Pyongyang will likely stage further, possibly bigger incidents, in the future to cement a leadership transition from ailing leader Kim Jong-il to his son. They say the North, which has a military-first policy, also stages "provocations" to extract concessions at multilateral talks.
Earlier on Thursday, North Korea released a report on defending last month's attack on Yeonpyeong, warning that the danger of clashes in disputed waters off the west coast will remain as long as Seoul and Washington are hostile toward it.
The North fired a barrage of artillery shells at Yeonpyeong, one of five South Korean islands near the contested Northern Limit Line (NLL), destroying dozens of homes there.
Pyongyang does not recognize the NLL, arguing that the demarcation was established without its consent after the 1950-1953 Korean war.