China shied away from backing an American effort to slap a travel ban and financial sanctions on North Korea, saying on Thursday its communist neighbor shouldn't be punished for testing a nuclear device.
Beijing's ambivalence came as the United States began circulating a new draft U.N. resolution on North Korea that used softer language in a bid to get Russian and Chinese support.
China's response on the North Korean issue has been closely watched by the world because Beijing is believed to have the most leverage with the unpredictable, reclusive country. China is Pyongyang's top provider of desperately needed energy and economic aid.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters that "punishment should not be the purpose" of any U.N. action responding to Monday's test.
But Liu added that Pyongyang needed to be told that an atomic explosion was a mistake.
"It's necessary to express clearly to North Korea that the nuclear test is the wrong practice ... and the international community is opposed to this nuclear test," he said.
The Japanese weren't waiting for the U.N. resolution which the U.S. hopes the U.N. Security Council will pass on Friday. Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party backed a series of harsh measures Thursday, including a total ban on North Korean imports and a ban on all North Korean ships in Japanese waters.
The measures came amid a North Korean warning that the country would have an unspecified response to sanctions, Japan's Kyodo News Agency reported from Pyongyang, reports AP.
"We will take strong countermeasures," Kyodo quoted Song Il Ho, North Korea's ambassador in charge of diplomatic normalization talks with Japan, as saying in an interview when asked about the sanctions.
"We never speak empty words," Song reportedly warned, without elaborating on the threat.
The Japanese were also lobbying for a tougher U.N. resolution that would include a prohibition on North Korean ships entering any port. Japan also wanted to ban North Korean aircraft from taking off or landing in any country.
Such proposals would likely face strong Russian and Chinese opposition, so the U.S. opted for a softer approach that sought financial sanctions and a travel ban.
North Korea also issued a warning to America.
"If the U.S. increases pressure upon (the North), persistently doing harm to it, it will continue to take physical countermeasures, considering it as a declaration of a war," Ri Kyong Son, vice spokesman for North Korea's Foreign Ministry, said in an interview with APTN in Pyongyang.