Seoul - Diplomatic efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis gathered momentum on Thursday after a divided UN Security Council agreed to meet next week to address the stand-off.
Three months after North Korea unilaterally pulled out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the security council said it would convene next Wednesday, though diplomats indicated that a decision on how to handle the crisis would not follow immediately.
In an effort to pressure the Stalinist regime to abandon its atomic weapons ambitions, the United States has been pushing the world body for months to take up the case despite reluctance from China and Russia.
The two North Korea allies fear the UN could force Pyongyang, which has said UN sanctions would be tantamount to a declaration of war, deeper into isolation, diminishing hopes of a negotiated settlement to the crisis.
John Negroponte, the American ambassador to the United Nations said on Wednesday that no decisions on UN handling of North Korea should be expected at the April 9 meeting.
"There was nothing discussed today about an outcome of these consultations or any prejudgment of any outcome," Negroponte said in New York.
The International Atomic Energy Agency referred North Korea to the UN Security Council on February 12, saying the Stalinist state was in violation of non-proliferation accords after Pyongyang expelled UN inspectors from its nuclear complex at Yongbyon and withdrew in January from the NPT.
North Korea opposes any UN role in a crisis that it insists can only be settled through one-on-one talks with the United States and a non-aggression pact. Washington wants the issue resolved through a multilateral framework.
Indications emerged this week that China, North Korea's closest ally, may be stepping up pressure on the Stalinist regime to bow to talks in a multilateral framework.
Speaking in Washington, Australia's foreign minister Alexander Downer said on Wednesday that China, facing US criticism for dragging its feet, was now making a substantial effort to press North Korea to accept multilateral talks.
"There does seem to be now a clear sign that China is making a substantial effort to persuade the North Koreans, first of all to engage in multilateral dialogue and secondly to exercise a greater degree of restraint," Downer said.
South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun's national security advisor Ra Jong-Yil was in Beijing on Thursday for talks with foreign minister Li Zhaoxing, following meetings in Moscow.
Later this month, South Korean foreign minister Yoon Young-Kwan was expected in Beijing, and could travel to Moscow thereafter, media reports in Seoul say.
Yoon, on his first foreign trip since he took office in February, unveiled a "roadmap" to peace on the Korean peninsula in Washington last week, details of which have yet to emerge.
Unconfirmed media reports from Tokyo said China was also preparing to invite North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il to Beijing for talks.
Analysts said predictions that North Korea would capitalise on the outbreak of the US-led war on Iraq to raise tension further have so far proved unfounded.
For the past two weeks Pyongyang has issued a daily condemnation of the US military action and may have tested a short-range missile on Tuesday, although South Korean defence ministry officials say they are unable to confirm the reports.
Even if true, the third test of short-range missile since late February would not be considered a significant security threat, a ministry official said.