BEIJING - As tensions in Asia over an ongoing nuclear stand-off on the Korean peninsula continued to rise yesterday, China warned North Korea of "serious consequences" if it carried out its threat to test its first nuclear bomb.
North Korea has few friends left in the world and Beijing is its only meaningful ally.
It tends to take a conciliatory line when dealing with Pyongyang, so remarks by China's envoy to United Nations, Wang Guangya that no one would protect North Korea if it proceeded with "bad behaviour" count as a serious rebuke to the secretive Stalinist enclave.
"I think if North Koreans do have the nuclear test, I think that they have to realize that they will face serious consequences," Wang said.
China's markedly tougher line on North Korea is the latest sign the international community is ready to show a united front in dealing with Pyongyang's repeated threats on nuclear issues.
Monitors in Japan and South Korea see no sign of an imminent test, but a US intelligence official said there were signs of movement of people and equipment at a possible test site.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow was working with North Korea to try to dissuade it from a test.
A US military plane capable of detecting radiation took off from southern Japan, believed to be part of American efforts to detect any signs of a possible test.
"We must do everything so that that doesn't happen," Lavrov said at a news conference on a visit to Warsaw.
"We are working with the leadership of North Korea to stop steps that could negatively impact the situation." North Korea relies on Beijing for food aid and fuel - some analysts say China's contribution is the difference between survival and collapse for Kim Jong Il's government.
Thus far in the crisis, China has appealed for calm, saying it hopes North Korea will "exercise the necessary calm and restraint", and calling for the issue to be handled in revived six-nation talks, which include both Koreas, the US, Japan, China and Russia.
The deadlocked talks are central to Beijing's efforts to boost its diplomatic credentials to match its growing regional influence and it has assumed the role of honest broker in the talks.
On Wednesday, North Korea yet again ratcheted up fears of an atomic war in Asia when it said it was planning nuclear tests to help it build a nuclear arsenal to protect it against attack by America.
Pyongyang is convinced that Washington is planning to invade North Korea.
The United States, which lists North Korea as one of its "rogue states", has denied that it has any invasion plans but Christopher Hill, Washington's top envoy to six-party talks aimed at resolving the crisis said this week that the US would not accept a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons.
North Korea is believed to have developed a handful of warheads but never before announced it would test one.
The threat of a test has caused serious alarm in South Korea.
President Roh Moo-hyun, who is due to visit China shortly to discuss the growing crisis, underlined growing international opposition to the North Korean actions by telling his government to step up diplomatic efforts to stop any diplomatic test and send Pyongyang a "grave warning" about the repercussions.
He also wants his officials to draw up a "contingency plan" in case the situation in the region worsens.
Japan, whose cities are within range of Korean missiles, is also worried by the escalation.
Despite tense bilateral relations with China, newly elected prime minister Shinzo Abe is due in Beijing on October 8 to discuss the nuclear stand-off.
International opposition to the North Korean threat stands in sharp contrast to a less unified reaction when North Korea tested missiles in July.
Russian officials said they were working with the North Korean government to stop it from testing a missile.
As the international community condemned North Korea's threat, a newspaper with strong ties to the North said the regime was not bluffing.
"The nuclear test statement was not empty language, but announced on the premise of action," the Choson Sinbo newspaper, which is run by North Koreans in Japan.
In 2002, North Korea restarted its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and forced two UN nuclear monitors to leave the country. It is unclear how far work has progressed at the plant since then.