BEIJING – China sent “a strong message” to North Korea about its nuclear weapons test and urged Pyongyang to return to negotiations about its nuclear arsenal, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said after meetings here Friday.

Displaying unusual harmony with China on a key security issue, Rice praised Beijing’s role in the crisis, and she, too, urged North Korea to return to the six-nation negotiations. She expressed pessimism that the isolated regime would take up the offer anytime soon, however.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing appealed for “cool-headedness” in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, reflecting Beijing’s longstanding fears of instability on the Korean peninsula.

China has long propped up North Korea leader Kim Jong Il’s regime with oil supplies and other aid, but there are signs that it’s losing patience and reassessing those ties. Some U.S. officials think that the apparent shift may reflect the fact the China has become a major economic power that values stability more than revolutionary fervor or ideological solidarity with the erratic communist regime in Pyongyang.

Senior Chinese leaders privately have expressed frustration with Kim and questioned his judgment with unusual candor, and a senior Rice aide, speaking aboard her flight here from South Korea, said there’d been a “sea change” in China’s attitude toward North Korea. The aide requested anonymity.

to speak more frankly.

China, which was deeply embarrassed and angered by North Korea’s nuclear test Oct. 9, sent a senior envoy, Tang Jiaxuan, to Pyongyang this week to make its views clear. Tang, who returned to Beijing on Thursday, said his mission produced results.

“Fortunately, my visit this time has not been in vain,” he said as he met with Rice. He wasn’t more specific.

There was an unconfirmed report from South Korea’s Yonhap news agency that Kim promised Tang that his country wouldn’t conduct more nuclear tests.

U.S. officials said they couldn’t confirm that report, and cast doubt on it.

A major part of Rice’s mission here was to ensure that China, North Korea’s only major ally, enforces strict U.N. sanctions on the country’s imports and exports.

Foreign Minister Li said China would enforce the sanctions.

“China will, as always, continue to implement our relevant international obligations and exert our due role in this process,” Li said.

That message apparently was delivered to the North Koreans as well.

Tang “went out of his way to tell the North that (the U.N. resolution imposing sanctions) was a resolution that everybody has to implement,” Rice said in a session with reporters who accompanied her to Asia.

The sanctions ban North Korea from importing or exporting materials for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, advanced weapons such as tanks and artillery, and luxury goods.

China will be crucial in determining whether the sanctions have any effect on North Korea’s political calculus.

Rice said she didn’t dictate to the Chinese how they should enforce the sanctions and noted that, since the U.N. resolution passed with near-record swiftness, discussions about the details of inspecting North Korean cargo are still under way.

She predicted that Beijing, which is concerned about a possible flood of refugees, would be “scrupulous” about patrolling its 880-mile border with impoverished North Korea.

The six-nation talks have been on ice for nearly a year, since North Korea boycotted them to protest a Bush administration financial crackdown that froze accounts linked to Kim’s regime in a bank in China’s territory of Macau.

China has been urging Washington to suspend the financial measures in order to restart the talks, which also include Japan, Russia and South Korea.

But Rice said the Chinese told her that the talks should begin without conditions. “The Chinese are emphasizing the need for six-party talks to begin again,” she said.

Rice said President Bush had made it clear that he wouldn’t reverse the financial measures, some of which were taken to protect the U.S. dollar against counterfeiting.

She was skeptical that North Korea would return to the negotiating table soon, and predicted that the sanctions could be in place for some time.

“I don’t know how quickly they will make a strategic decision to denuclearize,” she said. “I think we will be at this for a long time.”

Rice also met with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. She flies to Moscow for meetings Saturday.

(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-10-20-06 1511EDT

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