BEIJING, May 10 - China on Tuesday ruled out applying economic or political sanctions to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, appearing to undercut a crucial element of the Bush administration's evolving North Korea strategy. The announcement comes just as American intelligence agencies are trying to determine whether North Korea is preparing for a nuclear test.
Echoing President Bush's public comments, the Chinese said in a briefing on Tuesday that they still hoped that talks with North Korea would succeed in disarming the country, even though it has boycotted those talks for 11 months.
Liu Jianchao, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Tuesday that China rejected suggestions that it should reduce oil or food shipments to North Korea, calling them part of its normal trade with its neighbor that should be separate from the nuclear problem. "The normal trade flow should not be linked up with the nuclear issue," he said. "We oppose trying to address the problem through strong-arm tactics."
Beijing's apparent unwillingness to go along with Mr. Bush's backup plan to squeeze North Korea takes away the crucial pressure point that Mr. Bush's aides have been counting on. It also suggests that the strategy of threatening to go to the United Nations Security Council - which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has begun to discuss - could fail.
China's statement came just days after officials said at least one American intelligence agency had picked up signs that North Korea might be preparing for its first test of a nuclear weapon at Kilju in the northeastern part of the country.
That evidence is ambiguous, and some in the intelligence agencies, including analysts at the State Department's bureau of intelligence and research, are debating whether the activity they are seeing in satellite images signals that a test is imminent. Even those who find the evidence particularly worrisome caution that the activity could be a ruse.
Earlier on Tuesday, North Korea's state-run media said the United States was "making a fuss" regarding whether North Korea might conduct a test. While it dismissed the reports as "U.S. strategic opinions," the Korean Central News Agency neither denied that that was the country's intent nor threatened - as North Korea has in past - to detonate a weapon to prove that it could.
President Bush called China's president, Hu Jintao, to discuss North Korea late last week, though the White House gave no details of the conversation. But several current and former American officials noted on Tuesday that the Chinese had consistently resisted pressure to crack down on trade with the North Koreans, and seemed to have made the stability of the North Korean government a top priority. Mr. Bush and his aides have said that disarmament is their top priority, and the president has made no secret of the fact that he detests the North Korea leader, Kim Jong Il, whom he recently called a "tyrant," accusing him of keeping political dissidents in "concentration camps."
"Our sense is there is a great debate going on in Beijing right now, which is intense and divisive," one senior administration official said on Tuesday. "Their game worked fine when the North Koreans were talking" with the other five nations - China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States. But now, the official noted, "North Korea is saying it is a nuclear weapons state, and they say they want to go into mutual arms reduction talks."
That is a position very different from the one North Korea was taking a year ago, when the discussion was about agreeing to a de-nuclearized Korean Peninsula. The Chinese, the administration official said, "know that just getting them back to the talks isn't good enough now."
Still, the Chinese Foreign Ministry's statements suggest that China's strategy for dealing with North Korea remains basically unchanged despite the concerns about a nuclear test, and despite repeated appeals of the Bush administration urging Beijing to take a tougher line.
While Mr. Liu called recent developments related to North Korea's weapons program "worrying," he said both the United States and North Korea had expressed a commitment to resume negotiations and that China had "not lost hope" in arranging a new round of talks.