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China statement on North Korea expected soon, officials say

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • U.S. officials say China will make a statement on North Korea soon
  • Officials commented while returning from U.S. secretary of state's Asia trip
  • A South Korean report blamed North Korea for sinking South Korean ship, killing 46
  • China is North Korea's longtime international supporter

Washington (CNN) -- China is expected to make a statement in coming days on the sinking of a South Korean ship by North Korea, according to two senior U.S. government officials.

The officials briefed reporters Wednesday while returning from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to Asia.

An official South Korean report has accused the communist North of firing a torpedo at the warship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has announced that South Korea is suspending trade with North Korea, closing its waters to the North's ships and adopting a newly aggressive military posture toward its neighbor.

The two senior U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of not being identified by name due to the sensitivity of the diplomatic issues involved, said a Chinese statement on the incident was expected later this week or over the weekend, when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visits South Korea. China has long been North Korea's main international supporter.

"I think it would be fair to suggest that China is in the process of looking hard at what its interests are in the Korean Peninsula and its positioning vis-a-vis North Korea," one of the senior U.S. officials said. "And we are attempting to provide as much information to them about what our interests are, what we think has transpired there over the course of the last several months and a way in which our two countries can work together to move forward."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is likely to travel to China soon, the officials said, calling such a trip a result of diplomatic efforts to work with China on the issue.

In addition, the officials said diplomatic outreach to North Korea, which has been handled by talks involving five nations and Pyongyang, has been put on the back burner for now.

North Korea last year cut off the six-party talks -- which also involve the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia -- in anger over international criticism of its nuclear and missile tests.

"You will notice that there is no mention of the six-party talks in anything that we've said," one of the officials said Wednesday. "I think we recognize that diplomacy, some form of diplomacy with North Korea is inevitable at some point. But, at this juncture we're really not there."

The other official added: "At the moment, what we're focused on is changing North Korean behavior. We're not focused on getting back to the table."

Regarding China's role, the officials said there were discussions on issues but not necessarily convergence of views.

The discussions in China "were very candid," one official said. "They did not perceive the world the same way we do in many respects. So on issues like Iran, issues like North Korea, human rights, we have some overlap, but they are not identical."