WASHINGTON/BEIJING China must do more to rein in North Korea's belligerence, the United States and its chief Asian allies said on Monday after Beijing warned tensions could "spin out of control."
President Barack Obama sent his top military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, to Seoul in a show of support for South Korea after the North's shelling of one of its islands killed four people on November 23, precipitating the latest crisis.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held talks with her Japanese and South Korean counterparts, saying all three shared grave concerns over "provocative attacks from North Korea" and putting the onus on China to take action.
"China, as a vital partner in maintaining regional stability, a country with unique and strong ties with North Korea, and chair of the six-party talks, has a special role to play in helping to shape North Korea's behavior," Clinton told a joint news conference.
But with China not invited to the Washington meeting and North Korea showing little sign of backing down, the allies had scant progress to show from Monday's talks beyond their attempts to have China join in condemning the attacks as a way to further isolate North Korea.
Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said all three countries hoped for more cooperation from Beijing and Moscow, which have appeared less eager to get tough with Pyongyang.
"China has an important role to play, and I think this perspective is shared by Russia," he said.
China, which supported North Korean Communist forces in the 1950-53 Korean War, views the country as a strategic buffer against the United States and its allies and is the North's largest trade partner and benefactor.
Clinton said she was open to resuming talks on the North's nuclear ambitions -- the six-party talks include the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States -- but Pyongyang must first take steps to end its belligerence and keep its 2005 commitment to abandon its nuclear programs.
"They need to ... let the world know that they are now ready to come to the table and fulfill the commitments that they have already made," she said.
"PEACE, NOT WAR"
In a telephone call with Chinese President Hu Jintao, President Barack Obama urged Beijing to work with the United States and others to "send a clear message to North Korea that its provocations are unacceptable," the White House said.
The conversation between Obama and Hu took place as South Korea started live-fire naval exercises, 13 days after North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong island, close to a disputed maritime demarcation line.
China's foreign ministry said Hu told Obama: "Especially with the present situation, if not dealt with properly, tensions could well rise on the Korean peninsula or spin out of control, which would not be in anyone's interest."
"We need an easing, not a ratcheting up; dialogue, not confrontation; peace, not war," Hu was quoted as saying.
Analysts said Hu's comments showed greater urgency but that China was reluctant to lean too hard on the North, which is in the midst of a leadership transition, for fear of a collapse that could send refugees streaming across its border.
"They can't afford to be applying too much pressure that causes a crack or the potential implosion of North Korea," said Jack Pritchard, head of the Korea Economic Institute.
The International Criminal Court's prosecutor said it had opened a preliminary investigation into whether North Korean forces committed war crimes in South Korea, ramping up pressure on the isolated government in Pyongyang.
Mullen, the head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, was headed to Seoul to show "the South Koreans that we continue to stand by them in the defense of their territory and for the stability of the peninsula," said his spokesman, Captain John Kirby.
"I don't think anyone thinks we're in an emergency situation right now ... That said, it's still tense."
There has been a sharp increase in South Korean rhetoric in recent days, reflecting a view among South Koreans that their government had not responded strongly enough to the shelling of Yeonpyeong island in which four people died.
"We also shared the view that North Korea will face serve consequences if it engages in further provocations," South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said after the meeting.
While Beijing has not apportioned blame for the shelling of Yeonpyeong island, Hu said China expressed "deep regret" about the deaths.
Tensions have risen to their highest level in decades since the attack, which added to strains over the sinking of a South Korean warship in March that Seoul has blamed on Pyongyang and that killed 46 South Korean sailors.
South Korea began live-fire naval drills in disputed waters off the peninsula's west coast, ignoring Pyongyang's warnings that they showed Seoul was "hell-bent" on starting war.
The South's military said there would be exercises in the vicinity of the tense Northern Limit Line (NLL) but not near Yeonpyeong island as part of drills at 29 locations around the peninsula.
North Korea disputes the NLL, a sea border set up by the United Nations without Pyongyang's consent at the end of the Korean War.
(Additional reporting by Danbee Moon and Jeremy Laurence in Seoul and Andrew Quinn and Jeff Mason in Washington; Editing by John O'Callaghan and Christopher Wilson)