All eyes were on North Korea amid reports that the isolated communist state could be ready to compromise in its standoff with the international community over its nuclear weapons program.
The talk of progress came as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed home Sunday after a four-nation tour of Asia and Russia aimed at stepping up the pressure on Pyongyang following its shock October 9 nuclear test.
Rice, who arrived home in Washington from Moscow, was to brief the head of the UN nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, on Monday about her efforts to rally international support for UN sanctions imposed on North Korea.
The UN Security Council voted unanimously to slap Pyongyang with a range of financial, trade and military restrictions after its atom bomb test, and urged the North to return to six-party talks aimed at ending its nuclear ambitions.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency said the North's leader Kim Jong-Il had promised not to stage a second nuclear test unless his nation was “harassed” by the United States.
The report quoted diplomatic sources in Seoul as saying Kim gave the assurance during a meeting in Pyongyang last week with a high-level Chinese delegation led by State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan.
“Kim said during a meeting with Tang that North Korea would not conduct an additional nuclear test unless the US harasses the North,” Yonhap quoted one source as saying.
“Kim also promised North Korea would return to the six-way talks in the near future as long as the US promises to lift financial sanctions after the talks reopen.”
South Korean officials said they had no information on the report. Yonhap on Friday quoted a diplomatic source in Beijing as saying Kim had told his Chinese visitors there would be no additional test.
Tang was the first foreign official to meet Kim since North Korea carried out its first atomic test, sparking worldwide condemnation and the UN sanctions.
A South Korean newspaper said Kim had expressed regret to the envoy from China, the North's most crucial source of aid and trade, but Rice cast doubt on that report Saturday in Moscow.
“I don't know whether or not Kim Jong-Il said any such thing,” Rice said.
“But the Chinese, in a fairly thorough briefing about the talks, said nothing about such an apology for having launched a test,” she added.
After his return to Beijing, Tang on Friday said his trip had not been a waste of time but gave no details.
“Fortunately my visit this time has not been in vain,” he told Rice during her visit to Beijing.
Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing also reported some positive elements from the meeting, saying the prospect of quickly resuming the stalled six-party talks had been discussed.
North Korea agreed at the talks in September 2005 to scrap its nuclear programs in exchange for energy aid, other economic inducements and security guarantees.
But it boycotted the forum two months later in protest at US attempts to cut its access to overseas banks.
During her whirlwind tour last week, Rice met with key officials in the four other countries involved in the disarmament talks — China, Japan, Russia and South Korea — to try to ensure strict enforcement of the sanctions.
A key sticking point has been inspections of North Korean cargo shipments called for under the UN resolution. China and South Korea have resisted such a move for fear of aggravating tensions.
The United States says it wants to prevent the North from transferring weapons of mass destruction and nuclear know-how to hostile groups and governments.
In an interview aired Sunday by ABC News, US President George W. Bush warned that North Korea would be “held to account” if Pyongyang sold nuclear material to Iran or Al-Qaeda.
Asked if the United States would retaliate if such a transfer occurred, Bush said: “You know, I'd just say it's a grave consequence.”
US officials said Rice's trip had been a success, but one senior lawmaker in Bush's Republican party said his “gut feeling” was that Washington would eventually have to sit down for direct talks with Kim.
Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he thought US officials would say “in terms that they understand,'We're not going to overthrow you. We are not involved in regime change. You're going to stay.'”
“I believe that is going to happen. I hope it happens sooner rather than later,” he told Fox News Sunday.