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U.S. ramps up pressure on China to act on North Korea

From Elise Labott, CNN Senior State Department Producer
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China urges caution on North Korea
  • Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg is leading a delegation to Asia next week
  • The trip comes in the wake of increased tensions on the Korean peninsula
  • Steinberg says North Korea needs to know there are "consequences" for provocations

Washington (CNN) -- China should take a leading role in defusing tensions on the Korean peninsula by warning North Korea there are consequences for its actions, the deputy secretary of state said Tuesday.

In a speech to the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, James Steinberg also said better economic ties between the United States and China could help both nations. Steinberg urged Beijing to release jailed Chinese dissident and Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo ahead of Friday's prize ceremony in Oslo.

Steinberg's comments came a day after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan at the State Department, where the trio pledged support for South Korea in the latest escalation of its long-running conflict with North Korea, and urged China to take on a larger role in constraining Pyongyang.

Steinberg is leading a delegation to Asia next week amid increased tensions on the Korean peninsula following North Korean shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island last month, as well as the March sinking of a South Korean warship -- allegedly by a North Korean torpedo -- and recent revelations that it is is enriching uranium for nuclear weapons. His visit will follow a trip to South Korea by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, to show support for the South Korean military.

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"The tensions that we see and the dangers that we see come from the fact that (there) does not seem to be effective restraints on North Korea ... in theses provocations," Steinberg said in his speech. "We need to make clear the dangers (that) come from this provocative behavior. And rather than stepping back and tolerating it, we need to make clear that there are consequences for it."

Steinberg's remarks reflect what U.S. officials call a growing frustration at Beijing's reluctance to exert its influence on North Korea and urge Pyongyang to cease its aggressive behavior.

President Barack Obama called Chinese President Hu Jintao on Sunday -- Monday in China -- and told him that North Korea needs to "halt its provocative behavior," according to the White House. The state-run Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that Hu called for a "calm and rational response from all sides to prevent the deterioration of the fragile security situation" on the Korean peninsula.

North Korean officials have been pushing for the resumption of six-party talks including China and Russia. China has also called for "emergency" talks among all the six countries to address the tensions on the Korean peninsula. But the United States has thus far refused, looking first for proof that North Korea is serious about not stoking military tensions and serious about stifling development of its nuclear program.

But Steinberg said the United States doesn't believe talks would be productive without some evidence that North Korea is ready to end its behavior and take part in a serious dialogue.

"We need a clear indication from North Korea that it understands that this pattern of provoking -- and then hoping that people will reward it to stop the provocations -- is not one that we are going to sanction," he said.

Steinberg said the United States continues to be concerned at the Chinese government's tight control of activities, and the people that authorities in China deem threatening to the Communist Party. He called human rights "an important subject matter between our two countries."

"We hope that China will take positive steps on human rights including the release of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo," Steinberg said.

He said more balanced economic ties between Washington and Beijing would help both countries, adding, "We hope that in increasing domestic consumption, China can become a catalyst for growth."